Lil’ Jimmy Reed with Ben Levin Back to Baton Rouge
Lil’ Jimmy Reed with Ben Levin
Back to Baton Rouge
Pianist Ben Levin cut his fifth album last year while still attending his hometown University of Cincinnati. Guests on Take Your Time included Chicago blues luminaries Lil’ Ed Williams, Bob Stroger, and Rockin’ Johnny Burgin. Lil’ Jimmy Reed, one of the elder statesmen of Louisiana blues, was also in the house taking the lead in voice and on guitar on three of the album’s rollicking highlights. Reed, at a spry 85, hit it off famously with Levin, despite the 62-year gulf between them. By appearances, Levin possesses the kind of affable personality that translates to a natural touch with blues piano playing. Thus, Back to Baton Rouge, which will reportedly be Reed’s last album, swings with ease through five new songs and five neat covers, the latter batch including three by Reed’s namesake, the legendary Jimmy Reed. Ever since he first took the stage professionally as an eleven-year-old, Levin has turned heads. His enlightened style combines elements of Professor Longhair, Pinetop Perkins, Otis Spann, and Ray Charles. Engaging, to say the least.
Born in a shotgun shack, Reed too began performing for a living while in his teens. One night early on, filling in for Jimmy Reed at a chitlin circuit club, he was dubbed Lil’ for his innate skills and likable style. Reed recounts the 1958 episode here during “They Call Me Lil’ Jimmy,” underscoring the memory with still-piercing guitar amid a lowdown bumpy roll of a groove. The band, including Levin’s dad Aron Levin assisting Reed on guitar, and bassist Walter Cash, Jr. and drummers Ricky Nye or Miss Shorty Starr providing the locomotion, throws a perfect, understated spotlight on Reed. They set that tone with the classic Jimmy Reed romp, “Down in Virginia.” Levin plays delightfully through it, also deferring to Reed but still sparkling. On “Wish You Wouldn’t,” co-written with Reed, his notes tumble out sounding like a fistful of diamonds thrown.
Reed also still blows strong, melodic harmonica, especially sweet in tone during Jimmy Reed’s “I’m the Man Down There,” thought to be Reed’s answer to Elmore James’ “One Way Out.” The sauntering beat of it here is certainly less frenetic than James’ “One Way Out,” but nonetheless real, hard, excellent blues music. That and the minor key Levin/Reed co-write “Engine Light” ring out as basic examples of the basis of the blues and its captivating reach, rendered with authentic talent. Reed has not only been a committed and striking bluesman for as long as he has but took a sabbatical from it to serve his country for ten years. So ultimately, Back to Baton Rouge celebrates—with excellence—a life well-lived, and music that will live on.
Tom Clarke for MAS