A Brief History of the SPR Blues Band

Members of the SPR Blues Band at the Chicago meeting in 2003
Members of the SPR Blues Band at the Chicago meeting in 2003

"When I started coming to SPR, the Saturday social was a party in the suite of the president," says Bob Levenson . "It was a secret party, like one of these raves that gets announced at the last minute... Faculty and students would just drink in this very small sweaty space, and graduate students would vie to get invited to this thing." But at some point, "someone decided we should have a real sit-down social, and it was on the program, and everyone would come to a room, and it was this dreary dreadful affair that everyone skipped out on," says Levenson. "I would plan my program so I wouldn't go. It was several years of dreariness, just awful."

So when-at the 1999 meeting in Granada, Spain-Pedro Guerra, then a graduate student and now a post-doc with Jaime Vila , flashed his harmonica and proposed a few musical numbers to liven up the social, some key members leapt at the opportunity. Apart from Guerra, that first incarnation-which rehearsed together for the first time the week of the conference-consisted of David Friedman on harp and vocals, Don Tucker on guitar and vocals, Julian Thayer on bass, Michael Bears on piano, Friedemann Pulvermüller on drums, and Kimmo Alho on sax. "We didn't get on the bandstand until late that night because we were preceded by a troupe of Spanish dancers," says Friedman. "Vivien Corti was in the audience, but when we learned she could sing, she did the remainder of the set with us." (For a video of that first performance, click here).

"During the Granada set, people just listened," says Levenson. "When we did it the next year [the 2000 San Diego Convention]-the first year we had the big band-people just poured out on the dance floor and started dancing. It was a relief for us, because they weren't going to be listening too closely, but it was also this incredible kind of tribal thing, going from a group of scientists who had been promoting ideas and giving talks all day, and then that night they just dance that all away."

Since 2000, the band has been a regular feature of the Saturday Social at SPR meetings , though each year the composition shifts slightly. "One year we had three horns, and we could mount a James Brown review," says Levenson. The group-consisting of musicians spread out across the globe-"practices" throughout the year by accompanying a cd of 30-plus songs that Levenson puts together each year and sends out. For about half of the songs, Levenson also writes a set of arrangements for the horn section. Soloists like guitarist Pierre Jolicoeur work on learning the characteristic riffs that define particular songs, and the band's vocalists (most recently Bruce Bartholow , Ed Bernat , Mary Burleson, Jim Coan , and Lani Shiota ) practice the songs they are likely to sing. "When we get to the rehearsal, which is as short as three hours and as long as six hours, the songs that fall into place are the ones that we end up playing that night," says Levenson.

In parallel to the music preparation, John Allen works with the SPR management group to locate a local purveyor of musical equipment and arranges the rental of sound equipment, instruments, and amplifiers, all of which gets set up on the day of the social. Allen mixes the sound that night and each year has to master a totally different sound setup.

"There are disasters or near disasters every year-that's just part of the gig, especially when you play with people only once each year-but it's all part of the fun," says Bartholow, who officially joined the group in 2006 after a series of guest appearances. "Probably my favorite gig was Berlin in 2009. We played in a huge room that had been used for major rock shows during the Communist era-I love that I played on the same stage as The Scorpions-and the sound was awesome."

"The band is composed of the most flexible, generous, and supportive people I have ever played with-and I was in many different bands in my youth," says Terry Blumenthal , who first played with the Blues Band in 2002. "The thing that amazes me about this band is that it can absorb a new member for an evening or just a song, and that person fits in so well that you would think that they were always there." Levenson agrees. "There's almost no egos in it-it's quite remarkable for music," he says. "People are really generous about taking turns-there's just incredible support and egoless-ness"

Blues Band Timeline

October 6, 1999, Granada, Spain: Pedro Guerra proposes some light musical entertainment. David Friedman (harp and vocals), Don Tucker (guitar and vocals), Julian Thayer (bass), Michael Bears (piano), Friedemann Pulvermüller (drums), Kimmo Alho (sax), and Vivian Corti (vocals) agree.

October 21, 2000, San Diego, California: John Allen comes aboard as sound engineer; Bob Levenson joins the band (sax).

October 13, 2001, Montreal, QC, Canada:

October 5, 2002, Washington, DC:

November 1, 2003, Chicago, Illinois: Bob Levenson (sax), David Friedman (harmonica), Chris Patrick (vocals/guitar), Vivien Corti (vocals), Don Tucker (guitar and vocals), Kimmo Alho (sax), John Allen (sound engineering), Bob Krueger (sax), Friedemann Pulvermüller (drums), Mark Miller (bass), Ted Sobel.

October 23, 2004, Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bob Levenson (sax), David Friedman (harmonica), Chris Patrick (vocals/guitar), Vivien Corti (vocals), Don Tucker (guitar and vocals), Kimmo Alho (sax), John Allen (sound engineering), Bob Krueger (sax), Friedemann Pulvermüller (drums), Mark Miller (bass), Ed Bernat (vocals), Ted Sobel.

September 24, 2005, Lisbon, Portugal: Bob Levenson (sax), David Friedman (harmonica), Chris Patrick (vocals/guitar), Vivien Corti (vocals), Kimmo Alho (sax), John Allen (sound engineering), Ed Bernat (vocals), Alfons Hamm (drums), Terry Blumenthal (bass).

October 28, 2006, Vancouver, BC, Canada: Bob Levenson (sax), John Allen (sound engineering), Mark Miller (bass), Alfons Hamm (drums), Terry Blumenthal (bass), Chris Patrick (vocals/guitar), Kimmo Alho (sax), Ed Bernat (vocals), Pierre Jolicoeur (guitar, keyboard), Christopher Lovelace (drums), Bruce Bartholow (drums/vocals).

October 20, 2007, Savannah, Georgia: Bob Levenson (sax), Lani Shiota (vocals), Pierre Jolicoeur (guitar, keyboard), Terry Blumenthal (bass), John Allen (sound engineering), James Coan (vocals), Kimmo Alho (sax), Ed Bernat (vocals), Don Tucker (guitar and vocals), Heikki Hamalainen (harmonica), Bruce Bartholow (drums/vocals), Chris Lovelace (drums).

October 4, 2008, Austin, Texas: Bob Levenson (sax), Pierre Jolicoeur (guitar, keyboard), John Allen (sound engineering), James Coan (vocals), Lani Shiota (vocals), Terry Blumenthal (bass), Chris Patrick (vocals/guitar), Kimmo Alho (sax), Ed Bernat (vocals), Chris Lovelace (drums), Mary Burleson (vocals), Bruce Bartholow (drums/vocals), Don Tucker (guitar and vocals), David Friedman (harmonica).

October 24, 2009, Berlin, Germany: Bob Levenson (sax), Pierre Jolicoeur (guitar, keyboard), John Allen (sound engineering), James Coan (vocals), Lani Shiota (vocals), Alfons Hamm (drums) Terry Blumenthal (bass), Chris Patrick (vocals/guitar), Kimmo Alho (sax), Ed Bernat (vocals), Bruce Bartholow (vocals/drums), Chris Lovelace (drums), Don Tucker (drums), Vivien Corti (vocals), Kalevi Reinikainen (keyboard).

October 2, 2010, Portland, Oregon: Jim Coan (vocals), Terry Blumenthal (bass), Bob Levenson (sax), Bruce Bartholow (drums/vocals), Chris Lovelace (drums), Mark Miller (bass), Dave Friedman (harmonica), Don Tucker (guitar and vocals), Chris Patrick (vocals/guitar), Pierre Jolicoeur (guitar, keyboard), Lani Shiota (vocals), Mary Burelson (vocals), Ed Bernat (vocals), and John Allen (sound engineering).

September 17, 2011, Boston, Massachusetts: Bob Levenson (sax), John Allen (sound engineering), Lani Shiota (vocals), Mark Miller (bass), Terry Blumenthal (bass), Kimmo Alho (sax), Mary Burleson (vocals), Bruce Bartholow (drums/vocals), Don Tucker (guitar/vocals), David Friedman (harmonica), Chris Patrick (vocals/guitar), Ed Bernat (vocals), Pierre Jolicoeur (guitar, keyboard), Alfons Hamm (drums)