Review of Levee Town, Trying to Keep My Head Above Water
Normally I prefer my guitars fat and dirty in tone, growling rather than chirping, pushed to the edge of feedback before being reeled back in from chaos, but always, always bathed in the warm, the sweetly melodic. Chuck Berry instead of Chet Atkins. Albert King instead of B.B. King, though I love them both. Nor do I mean shredding just for the sake of taking fingers through their calisthenics. Always listening for the musical idea—melody the wave everyone can ride. One ear attuned to the heart’s grounding beat.
Brandon Hudspeth appears to be one such player. No slouch in technical dexterity, but more interested in fully drawing the soul out of his notes and phrases. He uses a Gretsch White Falcon with its signature gold-dust pick guard and gold foil eagle silhouette. “It has a fat sparkly sound that can’t be achieved with any other instrument,” says Hudspeth. You can really hear the pristine tones this guitar is capable of in the surf punk of Levee Town’s tribute to the legendary filmmaker in “Tarantino.” Levee Town has been together since 2002 and makes its home in Kansas City, a historic locus of great blues and Americana music.
But what I really love about this album is that, for someone that has obviously suffered from the isolation of lockdowns (like the rest of us), none of the music on this album is somber or downbeat. To the contrary, it rocks like 1972! There’s no self-conscious attempt at an anthem here, yet the lyrics are sometimes brutally frank, as they ought to be in the face of what has been described as the greatest peacetime policy failure in history. Levee Town bolts out of the gate with “The Music Martyr,” a pedal-to-the-metal rock number that dares you to keep up, its signature refrain, “Trying to keep my head above water,” a feeling millions could relate to during the past two years. “Locked Up For Days” packs a similar punch both musically and lyrically, expressing for so many of us the angst and agony of lockdowns. “Weight of the World” completes the Covid Age trilogy of songs with a plaintive ballad to all the people we’ve lost, using the White Falcon to great effect with a stripped-down, heavy reverb tone.
The song list is produced intelligently, with enough attention to a variety of styles to recapture the listener’s attention with each new song. I asked Hudspeth what motivated this musical diversity on the album: “I’ve always loved all kinds of roots music so I wanted to make an album that had some zydeco, west coast blues, rock ‘n’ roll, blues rock, and even surf influences. I love everything from Freddie King to the Ventures so I wanted to present an album that covered a lot of ground.” Hudspeth’s dexterity and fluency with traditional blues is evident on the Little Milton cover “Lookin’ For My Baby,” and the more hybrid blues-rock grind of “She Might Kill You.” “Outside Child” shifts to a big band jazz romp, minus the horns, with Hudspeth taking a brisk walk around the fretboard á la Chet Atkins or Les Paul. The only other cover tune on the album, Freddie King’s “The Stumble,” is done as a mid-tempo romp, demonstrating Hudspeth’s skill and expressiveness as a soloist.
Hudspeth composes the band’s original numbers and cites an eclectic array of musical influences: “I’m from Oklahoma originally but I’ve always been a fan of Jay McShann, Joe Turner, Count Basie, and Charlie Parker, to name a few. Those musicians and Kansas City swing in general will always be a part of my music. The music that has come out of Kansas City over the years is very unique and swings differently than music from other geographics.”
The rhythm section is first rate, holding down a fat bottom end so Hudspeth can soar into the stratosphere with his White Falcon. Bass player Jacque Garoutte and drummer Adam Hagerman are of more wise years, meaning more time locked in the groove, and that always shows. Like John Lennon said, “you’re the white line.” If you’ve got a great rhythm section you’re already more than halfway there. As Hudspeth explains: “I had an idea to start a band with my roommates basically. We started as a four-piece which was guitars, bass, drums, and harp. Jacque Garoutte and I have been together from the beginning. Our original drummer passed away from cancer and our harp player needed to inject himself into a more consistent way of life. Jacque and Adam Hagerman had been playing together for years before Jacque and I met. They both come up in the same area and toured together supporting different acts.”
As I’ve grown older I’ve learned to better appreciate both drummers and great rhythm players like U2’s Edge, learned to listen for the distinctive ‘shapes’ of tone. This ability to sculpt tones in a multitude of ways is what has made the electric guitar such an indispensable contribution to the world of music. It’s all “cadence and cascade,” as King Crimson might say, opening up endless possibilities. Hudspeth makes the most of his unique-looking instrument; he has a delightful originality to his phrases, a what’s-old-is-new-again freshness. Trying to Keep My Head Above Water reveals a roaming musical curiosity, a refusal to be pinned down—like Hudspeth’s Falcon—unfettered, free to roam the skies.
The production is first-rate throughout, the digital sound more approximating the warmth of analog. The fact that there are only nine tracks is actually a strength in this era when too many bands fall prey to the “more is better” temptation, cramming albums with substandard numbers or alternate takes that should have been left in the can. This was the great strength of the vinyl analog record—its physical limitations forced bands to trim off the fat and only release their strongest material. Too many classic albums have been ruined by re-issues larded up with the dross that was (rightly) rejected in the original sessions. By contrast, Levee Town and Brandon Hudspeth have created a tight, powerful lineup of songs that never gets boring for a second—not a wasted track in sight. In fact, I dare you to put on Trying to Keep My Head Above Water and stay seated—these tunes make your feet positively itch to dance.
And dancing is something we all could use a lot more of post-Covid!
Visit the band’s website and waste no time picking up this instant classic: https://www.leveetown.com