Out of the disharmonious confusion of "Southern rock and roll" comes Sea Level, and with it comes, arguably, the most daring and innovative music now being made south of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Formed in 1976 as a quartet composed of three former members of the Allman Brothers Band (drummer Jai Johanny Johanson, bassist Lamar Williams and Chuck Leavell on keyboards) and Washington guitarist Jimmy Nalls (formerly of D.C. Dog and sessions with Dr. John and Gregg Allman), Sea Level enters 1979 with an estimated 400 concert performances, three albums and a chart single to its credit.
How a Southern jazz/rock fusion band reached the top rung in the fiercely competitive Southern music arena, and how they plan to meet the challenge of the newly regrouped Allman Brothers Band is a story in which hard work, musical innovation and luck are the prime elements.
Allman Brothers keyboardist Chuck Leavell is generally credited with arriving at the concept for the band, and with enlisting Johanson, Williams and Nalls for the debut album, simply entitled "Sea Level." "Seventies Southern" is Leavell's characterization of the sound, which, on the first album, translated into a breezy instrumental fusion of rippling, honky-tonk piano, slithering guitar and occasionally, some brisk, sassy horn work. Leavell, Nalls and Williams also graced the initial effort with some refreshingly even vocals, a scarce commodity in Southern music.
Eager for national attention, the band, in 1977, embarked upon a grueling 200-date tour schedule, opening for the likes of Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, The Outlaws and the Doobie Brothers. At the same time, the second album was already in preparation, and some personnel changes were in order. Drummer Johanson (who suffers from back problems) was replaced by George Weaver, a friend from the Allman Brothers days. Musician/composer Randall Bramblett (with two solo albums and some session work for Gregg Allman) and session guitarist Davis Causey were also enlisted, thereby expanding the band's range and enhancing their collective songwriting ability.
"That's Your Secret," a Bramblett composition, got some radio play, and record sales increased from 200,000 for the debut, to 300,000 for "Cats on the Coast," a modest but creditable showing for a second album.
Bramblett brought a new polish and a greater lyrical emphasis to the band's music. His introspective philosophical lyrics were particularly suited to the band's increasingly cerebral fusion leanings. While this gave the music greater depth and profundity, it also served to distance the group from audiences more accustomed both to the bluesy rock of the Allman Brothers, and to such perennial favorites as "Whipping Post" and "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." This nagging identity problem persists, and is no closer to resolution with the new release."On the Edge."
"On the Edge" (Capricorn 0212) is most distinctive for its Bramblett compositions, and its confident demonstration of Sea Level's impressive range. There are elements of funk, blues, Latin and rock, and they are, for the most part, blended into a seamless sound. Of course, efforts at fusion typically risk confusion, and "On the Edge" is not without its muddy moments.
"Lotta Colada" sounds too Mariachi for a Southern band to play with a straight face, and "On The Wing" needs Bramblett's saxophone to emotionalize Leavell's mechanical keyboard work. Still, Nalls and Leavell have a fine guitar-piano give-and-take on the funky "Fifty Four," which, while it raises the specter of disco, has sufficient bridges and horn parts to avoid mediocrity.
"King Grand," "This Could Be the Worst," and "Living in a Dream" originally were released on Bramblett's "Light ofthe Night" album, but Sea Level proves a better vehicle for these compositions than Bramblett's original band. While the lyrics are of a more reflective, existential ilk than one would expect from a Southern rock group, it is Bramblett's bright, soaring saxophone that commands attention.
With this talent, he minimizes the Allman influence and infuses the music with a more cosmopolitan sound. Ultimately, Sea Level will have to transcend the Allman legacy from a position of musical, not lyrical superiority. Incorporating Bramblett's promising talent in this area will contribute to a higher, more distinctive profile for the band.
Under normal circumstances, Sea Level's reputation should continue to flourish and grow. The band now has begun headlining in medium-sized halls and is getting numerous college dates. Capricorn reports that sales of "On the Edge" already have exceeded total sales for the first album, and are climbing at an encouraging rate.
With the defection of Johanson to the Allman Brothers, Sea Level has recruited Joe English, late of McCartney and Wings, for percussion and drum duties. His experience should contribute to the coalescence of the band's collective expertise. All things considered, it bodes well for the fledgling fusion group from Macon.