Still lively and spirited after all these years
Before spinning Grandpa Banana’s new 2012 album release, I dug out a few of my favorite vinyl records dating back to 1971-2 from The Youngbloods and Banana and the Bunch. On his Mid-Mountain-Ranch LP, Lowell “Banana” Levinger explained how he and Peter Golden were standing around in 1963 at a Boston University rehearsal of “On the Town.” They voted “Harmon N. Banana” the folkiest name of 1936 and started the group, Banana and the Bunch. The talented instrumentalist, vocalist and songwriter then played from about 1965-72 with The Youngbloods before they broke up, and Banana and the Bunch was resurrected. Besides Jesse Colin Young’s singing and songwriting, another key element of The Youngbloods’ great, good-timey, folk-rock sound was Banana’s electric piano and various stringed instruments. You could always count on the guys for a fun, romping mix of ragtime, jug band, blues, folk, and bluegrass with a healthy dose of laid-back jam band attitude too.
Now turn the clock ahead forty years, and we find that Grandpa Banana still gets the blues. His voice has aged a tad, but he still plays piano, guitar, tenor guitar, and banjo. And’s he’s even added the siren to his arsenal! Since his 1967 relocation to California, Banana’s circle of musical friends has broadened too. “Even Grandpas Get the Blues” features his three regular band mates (bassist Sam Page, drummer Ethan Turner, mandolinist David Thom), and ten additional picking pals make limited guest appearances on 1-2 cuts each. They include lead guitarists Ry Cooder, Michael Barclay, Barry Melton, Steve Kimock, and Terry Haggerty. We also briefly hear saxophonist Roger Volz, mandolinist David Grisman, fiddler Chad Manning, harmonica player Thomas Ford, and bassist Bobby Vega. Obviously, this was a fun project for Banana to produce, and he hasn’t lost any of his spark and affinity for jamming and recording with friends. Another immediate observation is that every instrument on this album was played and recorded acoustically. Thus, it’s like the bunch of hot pickers are partying right in your living room, but where are the women backup singers with their clarion, bluesy vocals for material like this?
The set starts strong with tastefully-rendered renditions of “Married to the Blues” and “Good Day for the Blues.” Banana’s own self-penned “Just Can’t Quit the Blues” lets him indulge his sadness and pain for seeing the same woman on and off for fifteen years. Another album standout is the cover of John Hiatt’s “Riding with the King,” that dates back to one of Hiatt’s best albums, released in 1983 while he was still searching for his own rootsy style that fused rock & roll, country, blues, folk. I can see how Banana would like the perceptive and eclectic music of John Hiatt. “Blue Driver” is a warm and conversational piece that allows Banana to play his siren, and how can one not like the old ragtime favorite, “Blues My Naughty Sweetie Gives to Me?” I wouldn’t have complained if the album incorporated more of Grisman’s mandolin and Manning’s fiddle.
Regardless of whether it’s from loneliness, pain, sleepless nights, or swimming women that he gets the blues, I’m so happy Banana’s still got them after all these years. I listened to his 1972 LP again. There’s a photo of him holding a baby forty years ago, and he’s Grandpa Banana now. Back in the 70s, Banana wrote and recorded “My True Life Blues” in which he admits being “Too crazy for the Army, Too sane for the business world, I like to stay home play my guitar, Make love to my little girl.” That’s what he’s done, and the decades haven’t slowed him down much. Grandpa Banana’s music is still lively and spirited after all these years. (Joe Ross, CD Insight)