A joyous noise erupts from this new two-CD release from keyboardist extraordinaire Chuck Leavell (Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers). The set opens appropriately with a Professor Longhair chestnut and motors on through Stones covers, standards, Leavell originals, and a lot more. The pianist has stepped out in front before, notably with his band Sea Level in the late 1970s, but his vocals, while pretty good, naturally tend to take a back seat to his playing, whether on studio recordings or on the road with the Stones and others.
This set was recorded last year, after the Stones’ “Bigger Bang” tour ended. Leavell gathered some top German musicians to back him up, and the result was captured in the live radio performance from which these nineteen tracks are taken.
While it’s always fun to hear a group of ace musicians rocking out on tunes like “(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66” and “Honky Tonk Women,” the highlights of Disc 1, for me, are the gently grooving jams “Living in a Dream” and “King Grand,” which date from the pianist’s Sea Level days. Saxophonist Lutz Häfner shines on the former, while Leavell’s piano wizardry kicks up the latter, with the band churning along like a perfectly oiled engine.
On the whole, the best parts of Disk 1 are the songs you haven’t already heard a million times. It closes with the great old boogie-woogie number “(That Place) Down the Road a Piece,” which the Stones (and many others) have covered, and the beautiful “Alberta, Alberta,” which was reintroduced to millions in 1992 via Eric Clapton’s hugely successful MTV Unplugged album which featured Leavell prominently.
Disc 2 features his loving version of “Here Comes the Sun,” which sounds great except that it makes you miss hearing the harmony vocals you’re used to. Same with his otherwise rocking version of “Tumbling Dice,” which is nevertheless a great rendition. The keyboardist’s jazz fusion side is vented in his own “Tomato Jam” and “Blue Rose,” where the band shows it can match any American musicians at this smooth-but-tense style of music.
The thunderous “Compared to What” gets a well-deserved ovation from the crowd, and it’s no surprise that the set includes the Allmans’ famous instrumental “Jessica,” which perhaps more than anything else made Leavell the go-to keyboardist he remains so many years later. When he’s inspired, he can cut loose vocally too, as on “Statesboro Blues.”
Chuck Leavell may be a “musicians’ musician,” but there’s something for almost everyone here, and a lot of bang for your buck.