Sitting hunched over his resonator guitar in front of the fiction section at the Spotty Dog Books and Ale in downtown Hudson, a man introduces himself as Evan. The 20 or so audience members give him an enthusiastic reception. He closes his eyes, a wide smile breaks through his flaring, reddish-brown beard, and he roars through a version of “Salty Dog.” The amiable young man, munching on pizza and greeting well-wishers a few moments ago, has transformed into a leather-lunged troubadour who might have stumbled out of a boxcar.
He plays guitar with a heavy hand, emphasizing chords with strong downstrokes and occasionally interrupting himself with nimble-fingered flourishes. His vocal approach is almost like a tightwire act of bravado; committing himself 100 percent, he emotes with each ounce of his breath, summoning a dialect that sounds mildly tipsy and wholly road-tested. He seems transported.
This is likely one of the last performances by Evan Randall, a gregarious onstage presence with an old-time repertoire, fueled by the performing acumen and informed by the listening tastes of one Evan Levine, a 25-year-old musician, part-time sound engineer and home-electronics savant. He says he’s tired of the material and ready for something entirely new. Many of the friends and fans here this evening may not be aware of the distinction between Randall and Levine, or that the latter is intent on retiring the former. For most, he’s just Evan. But for Evan himself, there’s a lot in a name.
Levine, a native of New Jersey, came to Hudson via the Berkshires, where he moved in February 2005 after a stint at Temple University. When the young musician began surfacing, guitar in hand, at open-mic nights at places like the old Club Helsinki in Great Barrington, Mass., and Deb Koffman’s Artspace in neighboring Housatonic, his style already seemed fully formed. He played a mix of jazz standards (“I’ll See You in My Dreams”) and country-blues tunes like Mississippi John Hurt’s “Candy Man,” delivered with a bouncy, ragtime inflection. (When asked for an outline of his repertoire, Levine adds the category “menacing jazz,” to which he assigns selections like the Yiddish song “Bei Mir Bistu Scheni” and standard “Comes Love.”)
He made a lot of friends with his first appearance at the Artspace, and the event’s protocol was adjusted to allow for an encore later in the evening.
“Sui generis is the term that came to mind: He’s one of a kind. There was no one doing what he was doing,” recalls Stephen Dietemann, an architect and guitarist whose band 8 Foot River plays the Berkshires circuit. Dietemann was present for many of Evan’s performances at the Artspace. “I remember the first time I heard him, and I was stunned. I thought, how do you play guitar like that? I knew that he was hearkening to an older style, a Django Reinhardt kind of feel, but it was something else. It made allusions to it, but it was Evan. It was this unique voice.”
He adopted the stage name Evan Randall, and for a short while made a distinction: Call him Randall only when onstage, Levine everywhere else. But the two names quickly collapsed into one artistic identity. Levine migrated to Hudson around the time Helsinki relocated there from Great Barrington, moving in next door to Helsinki Hudson and working at the club. (He’s co-hosted a popular open mic there for one year, an affiliation he’s leaving after November.) Inevitably, he became a presence on the local music scene. A warm personality and an original spirit, Levine has been known to walk the streets of Hudson while playing his ukelele.
His bookshelf is crowded with titles like Intro to Electronics and the classic tome American Ballads and Folk Songs by John and Alan Lomax. An upright bass stands in a corner, an autoharp lies under some papers on a chair, and there’s also a small, portable Helpenstill piano. Scattered in the living room and home studio are homemade guitar pedals in various stages of construction. He demonstrates a newly finished fuzz box, first hooking up a vintage Casio V1 (the case reads “Electronic Musical Instrument”) and then his guitar. On a music stand sits the sheet music to “Sweet Georgia Brown.” The photocopied schematics to the electric circuitry are nearby as well.
The studio includes a computer he recently built, a jerry-rigged monitor, mixing board, and the main event: a stack of home-built components he’s still deep into wiring up. The idea is to take advantage of the digital beatmaking and editing capabilities of a computer while maintaining fine control and capturing true analog recordings of his hand-doctored instruments.
He plays a bit of a composition-in-progress, made entirely of beats.
“I don’t book the Evan Randall thing anymore. It was holding me back. I don’t care anymore. I really wanted to share these beautiful songs that I felt like a lot of people didn’t know. It was my way of showing people beautiful music. I didn’t even really think of it as me performing. I didn’t think about it as me developing a name about myself or something that was marketable in any way,” he explains.
“It was just a way for me to show people something that I love, music that has changed my world and say, here, change your world,” he says, cupping his hands as if holding something precious. Only about two months prior, he made a key break: He started telling people to call him Evan Levine again.
There are no completed Evan Randall recordings. It’s possible that the whole episode will fade into local myth. Evan says he has no idea if the thunderous onstage persona that became synonymous with that name will carry over into other projects. “More recently it’s the only thing that I do, so it’s hard to say. I tend to be really sincere when I’m on the stage. So maybe that’s just me, and every show I do will be like that.”
The gig this evening came about on only a few hours notice, after another act called in sick. To hear him describe it, Evan “does the Evan Randall thing” only with great reluctance now. But it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that he looks very at-home there, and very happy.
“Evan Randall is a very talented, passionate soul, and I think his music has always been a part of his survival as a human being,” says Heather Fisch, proprietress of a speakeasy-style haunt in Sheffield, Mass., where Randall once was the unofficial house musician. Like most of his old fans, she hadn’t heard he was moving on. “He just fucking schooled it. He schooled us all.”