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02 février 2008

Tony Levin performs solo for HopeTogether benefit

What do you want from Tony Levin first, the good news or the bad news?

The bad news? "Time travel will not be forthcoming," he predicts.

And the good news? "The day is coming when artificial intelligence becomes as intelligent as humans," he says. "The debate is, when will artificial intelligence reach us, in 20 or 30 years, or 150 years?"

Levin, the philosopher-bassist, professor of panspermia, plays Friday at New Covenant. It is a benefit for a high-minded cause: HopeTogether is the Penfield church's program that, since 2003, has sent members of its congregation on trips to Africa and the Katrina-battered Gulf Coast, with a specific mission to aid the poor in those troubled regions.

Levin, who has maintained his strong connection to Rochester since his days as a student at the Eastman School of Music, is planning a relaxed solo show. He figures he'll spend a portion of the evening answering questions about a career that's seen him play with Peter Gabriel, John Lennon, Paul Simon, King Crimson and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, and as part of the three sold-out "Friends & Love" reunion shows last spring at the Eastman Theatre.

He'll bring his bass, of course. And the Chapman Stick, whose 10 strings are played by tapping them. And he'll probably bring out the Funk Fingers, the drumstick-like appendages that he wears on one hand, giving his bass a percussive sound. You can hear all of that on his latest album, Stick Man.

He'll also sing, by the way. Levin has always been in the background when he's opened his mouth, until his 2006 album Resonator. "Yeaaah," he says, looking for just the right tone of dismissiveness. "But I knew before I went into it that a lead vocalist has a lot of elements other than hitting the right notes. I just had a lot that I wanted to say that I couldn't say instrumentally."

He keeps a journal and writes poetry. And as one century gave way to the next, those observations needed to spill over into his music. "There was all of the turmoil from the end of the century, and 9/11," Levin says. "And I read a lot about science and religion, and I think there's been a lot of action in both of those fields. So I've been trying to imagine the coming century."

Science and religion have been stepping on each other's toes particularly harshly since George Bush took office, with the debates over creationism, placing the Ten Commandments in public places and stem-cell research.

On the question of artificial intelligence, Levin sees the fast pace at which new technology is introduced — "Look at how quickly people got cell phones" — as a sign that it will be 20 to 30 years, rather than 150 years, when we're surrounded by smart-aleck robots.

"I predict there will be a lot more conflict in 10-15 years, when science takes some huge leaps and, in my opinion, starts evolving humanity into a more advanced species," he says. "I don't think there's any holding it back. How will we react to man the creator, as opposed to God the creator?" To that end, he's written a song called "Throw The God a Bone."

"Dogs look at us as god. We provide for them, and they adore us," Levin says. "If, and when, we create life, will we want them" — meaning the robots or biological life that springs forth from our science — "to look at us in the same way?"

Similarly, "Places to Go" blends science with theology. Its first verse opens with, "The theory of panspermia, the theory that life came from other planets," Levin says. This was inspired by a NASA mission to Mars, the search for water there, and accompanying microbiological life forms. "The first verse goes, 'Hello Mars, it's good to be back,'" Levin says. "Having some inherent memory of having been there before." Before the song is done, he's also visited Boston, then his grandmother in heaven. "Gee, it's good to be home," he sings at each stop.

"Intellectually, I have lots of concerns," Levin says. "What I try to do artistically is not explain those things, but filter them in through my artistic sense. Not simply to sing about religion or science."

He's much more direct with one of his major passions, photography. Levin recently published Crimson Chronicles Vol. 1, available on his Web site. It catches King Crimson rehearsing and on tour through the '80s. Levin displays an eye for backstage moments, such as drummer Bill Bruford standing on his head while Robert Fripp noodles away on his guitar. But this ain't backstage with Motley Crue. Not a groupie is to be seen. Levin has stories to tell, but he'll never make the cut on VH1: Behind the Music.

"The bands I have traveled with never have been that kind of band," Levin says. "If you want to give it a category, they are progressive rock groups, which draw nothing like groupies. The fellows who get excited about that music have beards and play air guitar."

Jeff Spevak Staff music critic

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