A player who found his thrill on the Telecaster, Levine is a fine instrumentalist in his own right, who has honed his chops with a number of major artists – not least Otis Rush
Bonnie Raitt has been a constant presence on the international music scene for over 50 years, collaborating with many – from Sippie Wallace to Mavis Staples, John Lee Hooker to John Prine – and boasts a long list of best-selling albums, with 13 Grammy Awards from 30 nominations to her name, as well as the honour of receiving the Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2022. Not bad for someone who was discounted earlier this year as “an unknown blues singer” by a certain UK tabloid…
Her own core band has been by her side for over 30 years, including guitarist and sometimes co-writer George Marinelli, Ricky Fataar on drums and James ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson on bass, while keyboard player Glenn Patscha joined the band a few years back in 2018. When George Marinelli decided to take a break from touring, Boston-based guitarist Duke Levine stepped up seamlessly into the role.
Getting His Groove
Having grown up in a house full of musical siblings during the ’60s, Duke’s history with the guitar is a long one. “I have three older brothers and a sister, so I benefited from their record collections,” he tells us over the phone from a tour in Hawaii, “and a lot of it was good stuff: The Beatles, Stones, The Band, Paul Butterfield – but also Merle Haggard and Doc Watson.
“[My older brothers] all played guitars, so they showed my sister and I some chords to get us going – and at the same time my brother Rick had a country rock band that rehearsed at our house most every day, so that was pretty cool to experience.”
As time progressed, Duke extended his musical tastes, listening to the Grateful Dead, The Allman Brothers, Little Feat, Ry Cooder and, ironically, Bonnie Raitt. He also expanded his interest in jazz music.
By the time he was 14, Duke had taken on a part-time job in a local guitar store near his home in Worcester, Massachusetts, and he also took the opportunity to study with a guitar teacher, the brilliant jazz guitarist Rich Falco who instilled a love for jazz standards that would stand Duke in good stead for his future ambitions and virtuosity.
Duke went on to study at the world-renowned New England Conservatory Of Music in Boston, and following graduation took a dive into the deep end by hooking up with blues legend Otis Rush for a European tour.
“I always feel I had no business playing alongside Otis Rush at that age,” Duke admits. “I just wish I’d known as much about him then as I do now. Otis was super-gracious, really cool and had a great rhythm section. It was one of those things whereby the piano player put the touring band together, and we did the European circuit of festivals like Montreux, North Sea and all that. It was the most amazing experience for me.”
Tours followed with Leon Thomas, ‘the John Coltrane of jazz vocalists’, and jazz drummer Bob Moses in the band Mozamba before Duke joined Boston rockers The Del Fuegos on tour and began to explore the city’s session scene during the early ’90s.
“There were so many singers and songwriters around Boston in those days,” says Duke. “People were moving in from outside the area to be in Cambridge [Massachusetts] because it was such a cool scene. Producers needed musicians to make records, so it was a great time to be right there and involved.
“I also met my friend Mason Daring, who’s a film composer, and started working with him on a bunch of movie sets he was scoring [including John Sayles’ Lone Star, Passion Fish, Sunshine State and Limbo]. This was a really important time for me because he ended up putting out my first three records on his label – Nobody’s Home , Country Soul Guitar  and Lava . About this same time, there was still a little bit of jingle and advertisement business, too, so it was a busy time to be working around there.”
Duke continued his band and touring work during this time, playing with major label folk-rock duo The Story, which also connected him with five-time Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter, with whom he played until the early 2000s. He then joined The J Geils Band’s Peter Wolf in the studio and on stage until he got the call from Bonnie Raitt.
There’s a ton of personality in George’s playing, and we’re pretty different as players, but I love learning what he did
Raitt Hand Man
“It’s been a trip,” says Duke, who started rehearsals back in January 2022. “Everyone has been so appreciative and supportive, welcoming the way someone new plays. It was a little daunting to come in after George [Marinelli] who has been with Bonnie for 30 years, but it’s such a great band with Ricky [Fataar, drummer] and Hutch [bassist James Hutchinson] who have been there even longer. I’ve learned a lot and I love playing alongside these guys.
“Bonnie allows you to play what you feel and solo the way you like – it’s never been a case of the artist wanting you to play the exact same thing every night – so there’s room for that, and it’s really refreshing. There’s a ton of personality in George’s playing, and we’re pretty different as players, but I love learning what he did.
“All that being said, Bonnie was very welcoming and realised that we’re not the same players with the same sound. For about half of the 2022 tour dates, it was the two of us in the band together, and it was great because I love playing alongside George. It was brilliant to see first hand the stuff that I’d be taking over on some of the songs. It was a real privilege to be on stage together – and I’ve made a great new friend.”
When it comes to tools of the trade, Duke is devoted to his Telecasters. “My main guitar is a ’63 Tele and I use a ’53 relic as well on stage, as I’ve left my real ’53 at home,” he laughs. “My Telecaster is the guitar I can play [pretty much] anything on – and I feel I’ve developed a sound of my own to some degree with that guitar. All the other stuff is great, and I’ve got some nice Les Pauls, an Epiphone Casino and some Gretsches, too.
“It’s cool on a session to have a bunch of different guitars. But, more and more, I just feel it’s a distraction to have more than a couple of guitars on a gig. I do enjoy lap steel, too, for textural sounds when required – a friend got me into a cool tuning, so I’m working on that to figure out some cool licks.
“On the current tour, I have this Supro Dual-Tone that I love and I’ve had it for a long time,” he continues. “It’s kept in open tuning with heavy strings for a couple of tunes. I have a Strat, too, for a couple of things. But, really, the Tele is the guitar, and I can get whatever I need out of it. I also play mandolin and mandola on a couple of Bonnie’s songs.”
For his backline, it’s a British influence with a twist as Duke’s favourite guitar amp is a Blockhead – a copy of the early Marshall JTM45. But on this tour he’s opted for the real thing with a late-’70s Marshall JMP 50-watt master volume head, which fits in and suits the sound of the band, he says: “I’m just playing it through a 1×12 cab, which is isolated because we use in-ear monitors, and although my cab is on stage, it’s baffled so I don’t get it too much.”
As for pedals, Duke’s ’board includes a Mad Professor Royal Blue Overdrive, the Jam Rattler overdrive and Jam Harmonious Monk harmonic tremolo pedal, plus a T.Rex Replica and Source Audio delay pedal. There’s also the Ethos TWE-1 from Vermont-based Custom Tones, who created a pedal based on Ken Fischer’s famed Trainwreck amplifier.
When he finds time between his busy touring commitments, Duke performs instrumental arrangements with his band, the Super Sweet Sounds Of The 70s, alongside longtime friend and Berklee College assistant professor Kevin Barry, who has recorded with Paula Cole, Mary Chapin Carpenter and Susan Tedeschi, and played with Ray LaMontagne and Rosanne Cash.
I always wanted to have tunes that were just more melody based – instrumental guitar music without having all the licks
Finally, there’s Duke’s solo instrumental work, on which you’ll hear the hi-fidelity sounds and tones he created for albums such as 2016’s The Fade Out. “I loved Hank Marvin on those Shadows records, so there could well be an unconscious influence for my instrumental recordings. But my early records had a lot of picking on them and country stuff as I was eager to show off what I could do as a younger person.
“I think at a certain point, even then, I always wanted to have tunes that were just more melody based – instrumental guitar music without having all the licks – so on my last couple of records, I think we’re more in that direction.”