Duke Levine

by A.J. Wachtel

Duke Levine is everywhere, onstage or in the studio, in New England or around the world, playing folk, country, R&B and rock ’n’ roll. There’s a good chance you’ve heard his ringing tone and stinging licks somewhere. He’s a local Worcester kid who grew up to become one of the best and most talented artists around. Born a Duke, he is now a king. Check out his latest royal decree:

Noise: You were born in Worcester. What bands did you like growing up and what clubs did you go to back then?

Duke Levine: I basically listened to my older brothers’ records. Luckily, they were into a bunch of different things: The Stones, Beatles, The Band, B.B. King, Doc Watson, Merle Haggard, Paul Butterfield. As I started getting more into playing guitar I got into The Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, Ry Cooder, Little Feat, Howlin’ Wolf, Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Pat Metheny; pretty much anything that was great, which was a lot back then (’70s). I also got to hear my brother Rick’s band, The Prairie Oysters, rehearse almost every day in our basement. Walter Crockett, the lead guitarist and songwriter, was a big influence, and I ended up playing in his band, right out of high school, for four years. Worcester had a really good music scene. There was Ralph’s, Exit 13, Sir Morgan’s Cove. Around the time I got out of high school, the Wormtown scene was starting, and there were some great bands. The Blue Moon Band, The Lynch Mob, Automatics, and a band my sister Rachael was in, called The Worst. At the same time, the radio station WCUW had an amazing Monday night jazz series at a little church, that brought in some heavies like Hamiet Bluiett, Archie Shepp, Ed Blackwell, and Derek Bailey. There was a great blues bar, Gilrein’s, that was one of the best sounding dive bars anywhere. They always booked great stuff. Pinetop Perkins. Sugar Ray & The Bluetones, Kim Wilson, Steve Riley from Louisiana, pretty much anyone on the blues circuit and more. I actually have the old, upright piano from the place in my studio at home.

Noise:  At one point in your earlier career you were mainly known as a rock and country session guitar player, but today you can be seen in clubs with your own Duke Levine Band, at the Me & Thee folk venue backing Slaid Cleaves, The Lizard Lounge in Cambridge playing with Dennis Brennan and in huge stadiums around the country with The J. Geils Band. Am I missing any groups you are also in today?

Duke: I still do a fair amount of sessions. I played on a record by Lee Ann Womack that was nominated for a Grammy this year. Also, in the last couple of years, records by Peter Wolf, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Garland Jeffreys, Martin Sexton, Chris Trapper, and Session Americana. In addition to the bands you mentioned that I perform with live, there’s also Peter Wolf & The Midnight Travelers, Roy Sludge, and I got to do some shows earlier this year with Roseanne Cash. Kevin Barry plays with her band, and I filled in for Jon Leventhal, one of my favorites, for some shows.

Noise: You have played in the Geils band since around 2011 with Kevin Barry. What is this music relationship like?

Duke: I started playing in the Geils band in 2009, when they played the opening of the House of Blues. I think Kev joined up in 2012? The Geils band is a pretty well-oiled machine. There’s some room for spontaneity here and there, but for the most part, we all stick to our parts. And it’s really a blast feeling how all those parts work together.

Noise: What do you like best about Kevin’s playing ?

Duke: The first time we got together to play, it was maybe 1990? It felt like I just added a couple more arms to myself. Not that we play the same, but there was an instant affinity, or musical sensibility, we seemed to share. It’s always been pretty effortless to play together. Besides that, when he’s on his own, and not making space for others, he’s just a terrifying guitar player. Most people that have heard him a lot still probably don’t know the range and depth of what he can do. I’m lucky to have witnessed this and I can tell you it’s daunting. Which is another reason I insist on playing with him all the time. Keeps me from feeling too good about my own playing!

Noise: What does your two guitar roles bring to the J. Geils band?

Duke: Well, when I started playing with the band, I was doing what Kev is now doing, which is basically more supportive stuff. Doubling a bass line sometimes, adding some extra power to some of the original guitar parts, stuff like that. And now I’m playing most of the original guitar parts and solos. The more we do it, the more it evolves.

Noise: And what are your personal favorite classic J. Geils Band tunes you love to play? And why?

Duke: I love playing a lot of the early ones, because they had such an impact on me when I was a kid. I was probably 12 or 13 when I first heard “Give It To Me,” “Musta Got Lost,” “Whammer Jammer,” and all that stuff. It’s really a thrill to play that great intro to “House Party” every time. It’s all pretty surreal, really, to play with such an iconic band. Everyone still plays with such an amazing intensity. Wolf, Seth, Dick and Danny are all great as ever, and Tom Arey, who plays with so many bands around town, has been awesome on drums.

Noise: Care to share a great Peter Wolf onstage story with my readers?

Duke: When I first started playing with Wolf, we were touring behind his great record, Sleepless. We were doing an event at The Sundance Film Festival for The Blues, a documentary series that Martin Scorsese had produced. We were on a big stage in a big function-type hall. Tons of people, food stations, bars, all kinds of stuff everywhere. We were mostly doing Pete’s own solo material. But we usually will do “Give It To Me” at his shows too. When we got to that one, Wolf went out into the audience with his wireless mic during the out-choruses. We did a bunch of ’em while he’s singing and doing his thing. We can’t see him ’cause he’s just lost in the sea of folks, but we hear him singing with us the whole time. When he gets back onstage, he’s got a beer for EACH of us in one hand, and the mic in the other. FIVE beers. Another one of those “I don’t know how he did it” moments. But it definitely made me want to play with him some more!

Noise: Care to share a great Peter Wolf offstage story with my readers?

Duke: Same gig. We were out at Park City, Utah for Sundance, staying at a beautiful resort near the top of the mountain. Amazing views everywhere you look. We arrived late the first night and then we were there for a couple more days. The last day, we get picked up early afternoon to go to the airport. We all pile in the van and get going. Pete looks around and goes “Whoa! This is NICE!” Wolf, the night owl, was seeing the view for the first time.

Noise: Are there other local guitarists and musicians you would like to perform with in the future?

Duke: I’m lucky to have gotten to play with so many of the great artists here in town. It’s really a genuinely open community and I’m thankful to everyone who’s ever asked me to play with them. Let’s see, I’ve never gotten to play with Asa Brebner. I think I could play “Jack’s On Drugs.” I haven’t played with Andrea Gillis, so that would be good sometime too. I would put a wig on to play with The Upper Crust but I don’t think they make pantaloons big enough for me. [laughs]

Noise: Any advice for guitar players trying to get their music heard in this tough music scene today?

Duke: Oh man! I really don’t know. In some ways, its the worst of times. And in another way, there are so many great resources we have now that can help us to get heard and put together a following. My advice is probably the same as it has always been. Try to get as good as you possibly can on your instrument. And play music that you love. Those are the elements you have control of. After that, I dunno. Be nice to people and in the immortal words of Viv Savage (Spinal Tap): “Have a good time, all the time.”


Duke Levine — 4 Comments

  1. Great interview! Lucky enough to have seen Duke play a few times, amazing musician!

  2. We had the good fortune to see Duke playing with Dennis Brennan at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge last year. We go way back, Duke played at a couple of openings at a gallery we helped to establish, The Prints and the Potter Gallery in Worcester.. Duke was just a teenager, but already great.