Latin funk by way of New Orleans and Motown

B ernardo Lopez started his musical journey playing in a variety of other bands throughout Cincinnati. Whether playing the Latino music of his homeland Mexico or other genres, a desire to create his own artistic statement steadily grew. Started in mid-2016, Levee has taken blues, soul, funk and R&B, crafting it into their own style […]

Levee breaks new ground at Oregon Express


Levee: drummer Joe Atkinson, singer/guitarist Bernardo Lopez, bassist Kevin McClellan (l-r).

By Mike Ritchie

Bernardo Lopez started his musical journey playing in a variety of other bands throughout Cincinnati. Whether playing the Latino music of his homeland Mexico or other genres, a desire to create his own artistic statement steadily grew.

Started in mid-2016, Levee has taken blues, soul, funk and R&B, crafting it into their own style under Lopez’s direction.

Lopez finally let his creative spirit fly free, “I’ve always wanted to write music,” he says. “It took me a long time to gain the courage.” Personal happiness and filling that void inside inspired him to do it. “It was very healing for me.”

Lopez wanted to create his own art. “I was playing a lot of other people’s music and envied those front people in Cincinnati that were and are my friends,” he says. “Everything was going pretty well. I couldn’t figure out what else I wanted to do with music. When I started doing it, it clicked.”

He enjoys the process of song writing, creating structure and content. “Composing seemed so far and distant for me.” He studied jazz improv at school. “That’s always been close to my heart.” His lyrics are used as perspective. “They’ve changed over time,” he says. “I think of them as life lessons in all types of different packages. They can be really heavy and metaphorical and sometimes just plain and simple. I have songs about lusting over someone, trying to understand people in an argument or dealing with a conflict with a partner.”

Lopez wants to address the social media trends of picking teams and the struggles of civility on Facebook and elsewhere. He sees many of today’s problems as more complex than just picking a side. “Everything’s so divided,” he observes. “I don’t necessarily shoot at a particular topic or person. I’m writing about my perspective, trying to address a situation from perspectives. I’m currently writing a song about a part of town I really love playing in. Though the people there on the surface agree on a lot of things, there’s this other culture of exclusivity and ‘cliquiness.'”

He uses narrative taking an introspective look within, trying to make a difference. Talking about issues and problems with an open mind, civility and respect instead of pissing each other off. “Sometimes change is scary and people are scared of being wavered by someone else’s point of view,” he says. “Change comes in all sizes.”

Held Up was their debut album and he’s in the recording process for the next. “It’s at its infancy,” he states. “I’m debating whether I wanna break down acoustically and have this intimate setting.”

They shot the video for “Hey Now I’m Gone” in a Cincinnati boiler room basement in a building from the 1800s. “It’s a building downtown,” he explains. “This guy liked our music and let us play and record there. It was cramped, making it awesome in a way, like being stuck with one paddle, becoming an adventure, in an old boiler room.” Despite the music, the video has a definitely creepy and spooky look to it.

Lopez is a solo artist but respects bassist Kevin McClellan and drummer Joe Atkinson’s opinions on the material. “I use the same musicians, though I write the music,” he says. “I see it as this professional team. I invite people to play and build a relationship with me and the music. I want you to be here but also be happy.”

The original three members voted on the band name. “It was the drummer’s suggestion,” he recalls. “At the time I didn’t see the band name as a super crucial thing.”

He came from Mexico in 1995. His parents listened to a variety of Latin American music from Cuba, Mexico, South and Central America with a dose of glam metal, Michael Jackson and Prince. Strong structure and arrangements attracted him to songs like “Heal the World,” and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” leaving impressions. “These melodies and harmonies stuck in my head.”

His overall vintage tastes made him trace the songs he liked to their origins, discovering Bill Withers, Donny Hathaway, Aretha Franklin, and Billie Holiday. “I’ve always listened to the old stuff first,” he says. “When someone tells me about a new band, it’ll take me a year to get to them, go nuts, and everybody’s already been listening.”

Lopez has traveled a bit but mainly kept a Cincinnati base. “I’ve been focused on writing, sharing and curating it.” He wants to create moments at shows with an honest product, sharing his art without the need or pressure of touring or seeking label attention. “I got a bunch of new stuff, lined up, hopefully released around the winter.”

This will be their third time at Oregon Express. “We’re here to do our thing and would love to share a moment with you.”

Closely related to Levee is the combo Every Villain is Lemons, or EVIL, a nom du jazz borrowed from Spongebob Squarepants. “In one episode Barnacle Boy turns evil and forms an alliance with other villains and they call themselves Every Villains Is Lemons or EVIL for short,” says Joe Atkinson, who is the drummer in both EVIL and Levee. The reference is a good reflection of their wry sense of humor that shows through in their music. “We start and end every show with the opening and closing theme credits from the show ‘Hey Arnold’,” adds Atkinson to underscore the point.

In addition to their original compositions, in the jazz tradition, they interpret a variety of other material. When it comes to choosing songs to play, they like to stretch their legs. “We play a wide spread of genres,” says Atkinson. “Our covers span from pop/funk like Vulfpeck to classic rock like Aerosmith/Black Sabbath to jam bands like Phish to jazz like Kamasi Washington and even some experimental/electronic stuff like Groundislava.”

Consistent with another jazz tradition, their line-up is somewhat fluid. Currently, they’re an instrumental quartet, with Brian Wood on bass, Dan Prince on guitar, and Curtis Holtgrefe on sax. Holtgrefe is unavailable for the upcoming Oregon Express show, and will be headed off to grad school soon, so EVIL will be adapting.

“The option we’ve been leaning towards the most is bringing in a female vocalist and a keys player,” says Atkinson. “Going for more of a Hiatus Kaiyote vibe. It’ll be a really cool change if it works out.”

Asked about his contribution to naming his other band, Levee, Atkinson says, “Levee was founded by Bernardo but I did come up with the name. The three of us each came up with 10 names and then weeded our way down to Levee.  When I was coming up with my 10 I based them around the things that were going on in the room I was in at the time.  I was hanging with some buddies and we were jamming Zeppelin IV and “When The Levee Breaks” happened to be playing at the time I made my list.”

“Dan and I are the oldest at 24 and I think both Curtis and Brian are 23,” notes Atkinson. The four members have known one another as far back as high school, but EVIL has only formally been a band since December 2017. “When we first got together last December, every week we would each bring a new tune we wanted to play and we grew our rep from there.”

“Yes we’ve been gigging since March and have only played around Cincy so far. July 14 will be our first gig in Dayton,” notes Atkinson.

Still a young band, they’re looking forward to the line-up change and progressing further this fall. “We will for sure live on,” Atkinson confirms. “We’ve got a few options we will be exploring in August and then helpfully back out playing gigs again by mid-September.”

So, don’t miss this iteration of EVIL, and stay tuned for the changes to come. It’s sure to be unpredictable.

Levee and Every Villain is Lemons will play The Oregon Express, 336 E. 5th St. Saturday July 14, 10 p.m. More information at www.facebook.com/Levee513/ or www.facebook.com/pg/EVILband513/ or oregonexpressdayton.com

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Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Ritchie at MikeRitchie@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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