Adam Levy’s guitar licks have helped sell millions of recordings and are heard daily on radio. He has the platinum records and Grammy Awards to prove it. But as recognizable as his guitar sound is, he goes unrecognized on the street. There was a time when he lived in a basement apartment on Albany Hill and spent longer getting to gigs than playing them because he didn’t own a car. His regular stop was a walk down the hill to Daniel’s Highland Cafe, where he played for the breakfast crowd. Then he’d carry his electric guitar and amplifier to the El Cerrito Plaza BART station for San Francisco shows. “I did one concert at the Paradise Lounge where I had so much guitar equipment that I had to make two trips on BART,” the soft-spoken Levy recalls with a laugh.
In 1995 he joined singer Tracy Chapman’s band, recording one of her biggest-selling albums, New Beginning, with its blues guitar-driven hit song, “Give Me One Reason.” Levy finally broke down and bought a $300 Dodge Dart. Then, just as Chapman’s album hit the top of the charts, he quit. “I realized that I didn’t want to spend two years touring on that record,” he explains. “I felt that I’d have more fun playing for $5 a night.” He moved to New York City, leaving his car behind. Levy hasn’t had one since, and he hasn’t had much time to worry about when his next gig will come since hooking up with an aspiring singer from Texas named Norah Jones. Her 2002 debut CD, Come Away with Me (and its hit song, “Don’t Know Why”), brought more Grammys and platinum records. She recorded one of Levy’s songs on the follow-up album, Feels Like Home. “I never wanted to do a sideman gig, but in Norah’s band it’s different,” he says. “Every night she sings two of my songs, and I get to improvise, so every show is different. It’s so fun. It’s like having my own band, only with one of the world’s greatest singers in it.”
Levy returns to the East Bay and his old solo guitar format tonight (Wednesday) at 8 p.m. at Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage (1111 Addison St.), on a Guitars Without Boundaries triple bill with fellow guitar hotshots Teja Gerken and Claus Boesser-Ferrari. Tickets are $18.50 from Ticketweb.com or 510-548-1761.
Although he now lives in Los Angeles and works in New York, Levy frequents the Bay Area often. This summer, Norah Jones’ band did two nights at UC Berkeley’s Greek Theater, and last weekend they played Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit shows. Levy also accompanied country star Rosanne Cash at October’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park. He will be at Yoshi’s on November 14 as part of saxophonist Tim Ries’ “Rolling Stones Project” band; he also performs on folk-rocker Amos Lee’s recent debut CD, and produced Hot Club of San Francisco’s new CD, Postcards from Gypsyland. His own solo album, Get Your Glow On, boasts guest vocalists Otis Clay, the Holmes Brothers, and Ms. Jones.
Levy may be busy, but he still seems oblivious to his success. “My grandfather was a musician, and even after he hit retirement he still woke up every morning and went to the piano to try to write something new,” he recalls. “I have that in my blood. I wake up every morning wanting to write and play music. I do that whether I’m successful or not. This year is successful.”