By James Calemine
Chuck Leavell, no doubt, stands as one of the finest piano players on the planet. His musical resume includes working with artists such as Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers Band, Albert Collins, The Black Crowes, Widespread Panic, Dr. John, Gov’t Mule, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy, Billy Joe Shaver, David Gilmore and a long list of others.
Leavell is also the author of three books. Leavell and historian Larry Cohn wrote the liner notes to Leavell’s album Back To The Woods: A Tribute To The Pioneers of Blues Piano. On this collection, Leavell renders compositions by blues greats such as Memphis Slim, Otis Spann, Leroy Carr, Little Brother Montgomery and Barrelhouse Buck McFarland. This album was recorded at three different studios: Electric Lady Studios in New York, Muscadine Studios in Macon and Studio 1093 in Athens, Georgia.
The diverse collection of musicians that play on Back To The Woods include: Leavell (piano, organ & vocals), Keith Richards (electric & acoustic guitar), John Mayer (guitar), Davis Causey (guitar), Randall Bramblett (sax), Col. Bruce Hampton (vocals), Danny Barnes (banjo, guitar, tuba), Neal Fountain (bass), Chris Enghauser (bass), Louis Romanos (drums) and Candi Staton (vocals).
Little Brother Montgomery’s tune “No Special Rider” opens this disc with a swinging brilliance that showcases Leavell’s amazing skills on the ivories. Leroy Carr’s “Evening Train” slides across the tracks on this mellow number that evokes blues records of old…from Champion Jack Dupree to Ray Charles to Thelonious Monk. Leavell’s version of Memphis Slim’s “Wish Me Well” is spot on. “Low Down Dirty Dog” contains a lazy piano riff that hooks the listener from the opening note.
“Losing Hand” equates love with a poker game where the songwriter finds the deck stacked against him. The stand-up bass and banjo on “Naptown Blues” conjures a fluid New Orleans groove. Keith Richards contributes his inimitable guitar prowess on the title track. “I Got To Go Blues” sounds like a cross between Appalachian fiddle music and rhythm & blues as Col. Bruce Hampton handles lead vocals. “Boots and Shoes” shuffles along with the aforementioned guitar players weaving in and out of the song.
“Mean Mistreater” ranks as a personal favorite. A reckless abandon guides “Southern Casey Jones” where Leavell lays down some mighty formidable piano licks. The barrelhouse rendition of “Memphis Town” contains a Saturday night sing-a-long friskiness. Candi Staton sings an amazing version of “The Blues Is All Wrong” where one might be baptized with fire. The final cut, “Vicksburg Blues” features only Leavell singing and playing the piano. Back To The Woods emerges as another fine volume in Chuck Leavell’s prestigious discography.