Sometimes the universe sends you opportunities you don’t feel ready for. You say no, and risk knowing what could have been, or you muster gusto and get on the bus. Denver based drummer Mark Levy got on the bus just about two years ago and his journey has been epic. From the success of “Circles Around The Sun” to playing next to Phil Lesh at The Capitol Theater, Levy’s trip has just begun, and the all roads seem to be leading to Terrapin Station.
The Colorado music scene got to know Mark Levy well over the years through bands like Frogs Gone Fishin’, The Congress, and Bonfire Dub, or during the thousands of times he played with other Colorado based musicians in different line-ups. His contribution to the local music scene has been monumental. Levy has played with some heavy hitters touring nationally as well, but this past year has put him in front of the eyes of the world.
During his time on tour with The Congress several years ago, Levy befriended Adam MacDougall of The Black Crowes and Chris Robinson Brotherhood. The two kept in touch and MacDougall hinted that guitarist Neal Casal (Ryan Adams and The Cardinals, Chris Robinson Brotherhood, Hard Working Americans) might be calling him for “something.” Levy got that call and a couple weeks later was on the plane to California with no expectations. “All Neal really said was that he wanted to bring me out to Ventura for a couple days to do this recording session that Bill Kreutzmann’s son Justin had commissioned for the Grateful Dead ‘Fare Thee Well’ shows,” said Levy during a recent conversation with Listen Up Denver!.
The two weeks leading up to Levy’ recording “Circles Around The Sun” were filled with introspection and nervousness. And rightfully so. This was a big leap. Levy reached out to his brother Ben, who has been a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for thirteen years. Both Mark and Ben are graduates of the New England Conservatory of Music, and Mark has relied on his older brother as family and mentor. When questioning why he had been chosen for the role, his brother responded “You can’t think about why. All you need to worry about is showing up, finding your center, and contributing.” According to Levy, “That statement has stayed with me. I was so lucky to get that from him”.
Levy arrived at Castaway 7 Studios in Ventura, California on a Sunday night. The band had breakfast Monday morning and then spent about twelve hours in the studio. They did the same thing on Tuesday, then Levy went straight from the studio to the airport. “It was a whirlwind,” said Levy, “We had a list of specific songs we needed to capture the vibe of. We had two days and needed to produce five hours of music from scratch. I mean, we NEVER played together before. Most bands would spend months doing something like this. The project was born inside this amazing incubator. Neal did a great job of helping us visualize the setting and audience for the project.”
The resulting project exposed Levy’s drumming to universal attention when the songs from “Circles Around The Sun” were played as intermission music for “Fare Thee Well” shows in Chicago and Santa Clara during summer of 2015 and it was a game changer. When he entered into the project had no idea the music would be part of the webcasts, and millions around the globe would hear his prolific contribution to the project, nor did he expect the music to be released as an album and be so well received. He also didn’t see himself playing with Phil Lesh this time last year. The results of Levy heeding the call to participate in “Circles Around The Sun” have been staggering.
Levy didn’t play a role in the mixing and post production, so he didn’t hear any of the finished material until it was played at the “Fare Thee Well” shows. “I was home in Colorado when the Santa Clara shows happened.” shared Levy, “I was actually playing a gig at the Shakedown Bar in Vail. The webcast audio was playing as the house music in the bar when I walked in before the show, and I heard our completed project for the first time. That’s when it all felt real. I got to go to two of the Chicago shows and the vibe I felt at Soldier Field was incredible. It was the first time I had seen the Grateful Dead.”
After the “Fare Thee Well” shows, the buzz about the intermission music started picking up. No one had any idea what it was, or who recorded it. “I was surfing around on the internet and I saw a thread on a blog that was trying to identify the intermission music at the shows.” said Levy, “People thought it was some lost Garcia or Dead recordings, which I thought was way off. What we did wasn’t groundbreaking, but it resonated because it was honest by design. We wrote something original in the spirit of The Grateful Dead and that spirit was present when we recorded it.”
Levy wasn’t the only one who knew he was feeling the spirit, and not long after the Fare Thee Well shows, Levy was invited to play with Phil Lesh at Terrapin Crossroads, then invited back a couple more times. It is hard to deny just how amazing this turn of events is for Levy. His craft is being authenticated by a member of one of the most influential bands in history. Now, just a couple of years after getting on the plane to record for a project he knew nothing about, he is playing three nights with Phil Lesh and Friends at the Capitol Theater to celebrate Lesh’s 77th birthday.
To Levy, he is just doing his thing. Sure, he understands the magnitude of the past year, and he is focusing on his craft more than ever, but he is mindfully putting one foot in front of the other, not hoping or wishing for anything more than to keep playing music. “At the end of the day, we are the ingredients,” shared Levy. “The energy completes the experience. I am just gonna keep showing up, finding my center and finding ways to contribute to the sound straight from my heart.”