Chuck Leavell - keyboards, vocals; Jimmy Nalls - guitar, vocals; Davis Causey - guitar; Randall Bramblett - keyboards, sax, percussion, vocals; Lamar Williams - bass, vocals; Joe English - drums, percussion
Following the 1975 Allman Brothers Band album, Win Lose Or Draw, both Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts began actively pursuing solo careers. The group managed to stick it out into 1976, when Gregg was arrested on federal drug charges and agreed to testify against a friend and employee of the band. These factors, combined with the storm of publicity surrounding Gregg's marriage to Cher, took its toll on the group. During this time, keyboard player Chuck Leavell, bassist Lamar Williams and drummer Jai Johanny Johanson formed a trio called We Three that often jammed during rehearsals and sound checks and occasionally opened shows for the group. When the Allman Brothers Band inevitably disbanded, the trio became a quartet with the addition of guitarist Jimmy Nalls. Changing their name to Sea Level, a phonetic pun on their leader's name (C. Leavell), they toured extensively and signed on with Capricorn Records, then the epicenter label of Southern Rock.
Mixing elements of blues, jazz, rock and funk, they released an impressive debut album in 1977 that considerably raised their profile. Following the album release, the group expanded to a septet, adding George Weaver as a second drummer and percussionist and Randall Bramblett, an extremely talented singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist as the new front man. Bramblett also brought in his friend, guitarist Davis Causey, now giving the group that twin lead guitar sound so essential to most Southern Rock bands. This configuration of the band was prolific, releasing two albums (Cats On The Coast and On The Edge) in 1978, and through extensive touring, established themselves as a great live act with a unique sound that could loosely be described as a fusion of Southern Rock and Jazz. Prior to the band's third album, both drummers departed. Joe English, a powerful drummer that had initially established himself in the early 1970's band, Jam Factory, and had just come off a stint as the drummer for Paul McCartney's band, Wings, filled this considerable void. English solidified the sound of the group, giving it a more propulsive bottom end than ever before. This lineup, armed with catchy songs, superlative musicianship and a natural gift for tight improvisation, became one of the finest southern rock, as well as jazz-rock fusion bands on the planet.
It is this particular lineup that took to the stage of New York City's Bottom Line for a two night, four-show stand in November of 1978, on a bill that also featured blues guitarist Albert Collins. This performance on the opening night of this run finds the group in phenomenal form, performing material from all three of their albums, as well as a few non-album surprises.
Following a brief tuning and introduction sequence, they kick the set off with an original arrangement of Muddy Water's "I'm Ready." This bluesy, energetic romp features Nalls and Causey recreating that twin guitar sound that epitomized the southern rock sound that Leavell and Williams excelled at within the context of the Allman Brothers. Never released by the group, this is a fine opener that immediately engages the audience. That done, they are now able to veer off into a sound all their own, beginning with "Rain In Spain," a Jazz-fueled track from the debut album, spotlighting the fluid acoustic piano work of Chuck Leavell.
The next two tracks focus on material from the newest album at the time, On The Edge. The first of these, "Living In A Dream," showcases the songwriting and soulful lead vocals of Bramblett. At the request of members of Albert Collins band (who opened these shows), the band next serves up "Lotta Colada." This enticing instrumental has an exotic tropical feel, featuring outstanding acoustic piano work from Leveall as well as great call and response soloing from Nalls and Causey. This is followed by "That's Your Secret," the modestly successful single from their Cats On The Coast album. Funky and soulful, this features plenty of pumping organ, soaring guitar solos and particularly impressive drumming from English.
Another standout track from the newest album follows with "King Grand." Apparently a skirmish developed in the audience prior to the beginning of this number and one can here Chuck Leavell encouraging the perpetrators to "take it easy" numerous times. Despite the distractions, this is nonetheless an impressive performance, beginning like a traditional blues ballad, but transcending those limitations and becoming a funky celebration. This features outstanding piano, organ, and synth work from Leavell and Bramblett and inspired guitar solos from Nalls and Causey near the end. Nalls also contributes his funky instrumental, "Fifty-Four," the band's current single. Propelled by Joe English's fatback drumming and the tasteful bass work of Lamar Williams, the ensemble playing is exceptional here, with Bramblett adding sax embellishments and Nalls and Leavell heading straight into fusion territory, with very compelling results.
With a dedication to Albert Collins, Sea Level next heads into Chuck Leavell's "Country Fool." Featuring an extended bluesy piano intro leading into the song proper, this soon transforms into pure southern rock territory. This serves as a prelude to the band stretching out, which they thoroughly do on the next number, "Grande Larceny." Beginning introspectively, this instrumental has a lovely South American flavor, featuring beautiful piano work from Leavell. Approximately three minutes in, the band develops a more aggressive jam dominated by the interplay between the guitarists and Bramblett's sax, with the keyboards delightfully floating in and out of the fray. When Nalls really takes off a few minutes later, this really gets cooking and features outstanding improvisations from all involved, including Bramblett who blows his sax through a delay unit, allowing him to feed off himself as well as the rest of the band. It's a tour-de-force performance lasting nearly 17 minutes that closes the set and leaves the audience eager for more.
When they return for the encore, they launch into "Crazy World," a standout track from Randall Bramblett's first solo album, That Other Mile, featuring dual acoustic piano work from Bramblett and Leavell. Bramblett's piano playing has a delightful recklessness that contrasts beautifully with Leavell's technical perfection on the instrument. They even take the opportunity to veer off into a flight of straightforward boogie-woogie that is both humorous and musically impressive, ending the performance with great style and flare.
This engaging performance proves that Sea Level was no mere Allman Brothers Band offshoot. This was a thoroughly original band overflowing with talent that could deliver the goods onstage. The sound reflects their southern rock roots, but is equally derivative of funk and jazz, resulting in a unique southern rock form of fusion that remains fresh even decades later.