Giant Kings, Last Call

I stopped into Mouradian Guitars in Winchester a few weeks ago on a whim. I usually take my guitars there to be repaired by the legendary Jim Mouradian, and guitars for sale line the walls. But Jim and his son also have a few scattered vintage combo amps on the floor near the front of the store and I had a bit of a jones to replace a small combo amp I have been using for gigs in small clubs and bars for years. All of a sudden I really wanted an old Boogie amp, something that came over me like an adolescent obsession. And it was probably my nostalgia for an amp that was hugely popular during the years that corresponded with my adolescence that gave me this particular mid-life itch. Boogies, though, are relatively rare and hard to come by nowadays. I figured Mouradian might have a good pragmatic Marshall or Vox combo that might fit the bill.

I had only about an extra hour or so to spare in between adult responsibilities that day. But the shop  (like bookstores and record stores, it’s one of the few independent guitar/amp stores left) is only about 10 minutes from my house. I walked in and, out of the corner of my eye, saw Jim talking to a couple of guys at the counter. I gave a quick nod but I was already looking down to see what amps they had. Well, fuck me! They had a Boogie, the right vintage (if not the coveted cane-front version). So I looked over to Jim for approval to try it out. And who do I see looking back at me? My friend, guitar god Duke Levine, one of the guys standing at the counter. He was giving my a stare, waiting for me to notice him. I laughed. “D’oh, hey Duke!” I said. We started talking about him getting some sweet guitar tweaked and I told him about my fever for which the amp was the only cure. I grabbed my guitar from the trunk of my car and fired up the Boogie. Aside from a slight rattle, it sounded good. Well, of course I had to ask my local guitar hero (never mind “local;” more on that soon) to play a bit so I could hear what a virtuoso master of tone made of the amp. He played a few modest licks. It sounded even better, of course. The price was perfect. Duke had to split, but I ended up playing the sleep out of the amp’s eyes until it was really sounding great.

As I was putting away my guitar, Jim was standing talking to some fiftysomething non-rocking looking guy at the counter. Jim shouted to me, “Hey, Bill. Wouldn’t you say Duke is the best guitarist in town?”

Now, I am not one to go for the whole ranking of music and musicians. This is not a competition. Thank God, because Duke is like Michael Jordan I am a third-string bench player for the Washington Generals. So, this was not something I had to mull. Instantly I laughed, “Uh, yeah, no doubt,” or something similarly articulate.

“Maybe even one of the best in the world,” said Jim, explaining who Duke was to this guy at the counter, who I gathered was not a musician, just a buddy from the area.

“Yeah. I would have to agree with you,” I said.

And it’s the truth. I have had the pleasure of witnessing many of the greats in concert, even sharing the stage with a few. J Mascis a a master stylist and melodicist. Derek Trucks played Stones covers (you can jump to around 2:50 here for a tragically short sample) with some us one night and hearing what he did my my guitar and my amp made me feel like it was a wholly different instrument. My now-stale line that night was that I felt like my guitar was cheating on me with another man, explaining it away with, “Well, you never touched me like that.”

Again, I don’t really search out  the whole virtuoso thing. I have never gone to see Al DiMeola but maybe I should have. But yeah, I am guitarist and I have always had a great appreciation of and seen guys like Jorma, Jerry, Mick Taylor, and would give a lot to have seen Hendrix and so on. I am a songs guy. Stuff has to suit the songs. And that’s the thing about Duke. You can go see him playing sideman to many fine singer-songwriters, or playing with the reunited J. Geils Band, and you won’t have a sense of his capabilities. You will hear him play perfect, tasteful stuff that fits the songs.

Which is one reason why you should go see the Giant Kings if you can. Because after contributing astoundingly beautiful guitar parts that suit the exquisite repertoire of vintage R&B, soul, and country-soul songs, played by what has to be the most impressive combo in Boston, Duke lets loose  more than a little bit and will floor even the most jaded among us with effortlessly fluid solos. When it comes to the tour-de-force version of “Such a Night,” the whole band takes you on a journey with their solos, including a Mills Brothers-inspired trombone scat by singer, Chris Cote. But Duke himself brings us down the back roads of outer space, each performance taking us to new heights. He will go from Santo & Johnny-like moans, to blistering Chet Atkins-like country Tele runs, touching New Orleans blues to Stonsey rock all in a space of eight bars or so. Never mind that bassist Marty Ballou is backing him with James Jamerson-like basslines played primarily on an upright, sitting in an impossible pocket laid down by drummer Andy Plaistead. Or that there is a horn section lead by the extremely talented yackety saxman, Paul Ahlstrand, coupled with bari player, Mark Earley. And the fact that I have not even mentioned the fantastic Kevin Barry on lap steel and second guitar (or perhaps it is 1[b] guitar), points to the embarrassment of riches here.

What singer could possibly hold his own against this imposing crew? Why, it is Chris Cote, he of the bellowing , cooing, caressing, and clobbering vocal capabilities. And if the music alone was not enough to keep a permanent goofy smile plastered across my face, Cote’s ad libs between songs are comedy gold. It is like having, I don’t know, George Carlin? coming up between songs as Sam Cooke rocked the Copa or between Lou Rawls sets as he recorded his classic 1966 Live!  LP. When I last saw them two weeks ago, there were a couple of white-haired gents, one looking a lot like present day Nick Lowe, the other like a sort of younger George Plimpton, who had that goofy smile as well, seemingly transported back to the days of their own adolescence with the performances of these songs. Maybe I was looking too much into it.

I have gone on about these shows before, a couple of years back, for Boston Magazine. It is possible that I just don’t get out enough, but I feel really lucky to live in Boston when I can pop into the Lizard Lounge and witness such A-list musicianship. It must be like stumbling into an after-hours joint in Memphis when the Stax guys would play a set, or in Detroit when some of the Funk Brothers would play behind Marvin, or Nashville on any given night.

Tonight, Wednesday, September 4 is the last night of their current residency and they don’t play many of them. Once a year, I think. Like Christmas. I will have been to three of the four this past month. I am gonna say it is sold out in advance, but there are usually some tix at the door, and more availability for the second set.

(I believe the photo I used is by Hans Wendlend.)

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