Levon Helm Remembered: Larry Campbell Talks (2007)
As an anchor in Bob Dylan’s best band since The Band, a charter member of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles and a recent Friend of Phil Lesh, Larry Campbell has entertained crowds one hundred thousand strong, enthralled intimate gatherings of a couple dozen and even played for a Pope. So why is it then that Larry Campbell isn’t a household name? Talented enough to be star in his own right, Campbell is that rare performer whose main concern is satisfying an audience of one – himself. In sitting down with the recognizable, but not always identifiable, guitarist, fiddler and multi-instrumentalist, you get a sense of how the humble-yet-confident gentleman has become one of the industry’s most respected sidemen, session musicians and producers.
Thirty years in the music business have not been hard on Campbell. Just a little bit older than fifty, he looks much younger, showing none of the signs of road weariness or poor living sadly typical of rock veterans. There is nothing hasty about Campbell, as without being calculating, he speaks deliberately, directly and honestly, exuding a friendly and welcoming warmth. In discussing a number of the musicians he’s played with over the years, he is open with his thoughts but careful not to speak for others, making no attempt to guess what might be in the mind of anyone else. I had the opportunity to chat with Campbell a couple days after he accompanied The Band’s Levon Helm at a pair of sold-out shows at New York City’s Beacon Theater.
The Beacon Theater shows marked the first time that Helm had brought one of his Midnight Rambles outside of the cozy confines of his Woodstock, New York studio. “We had been trying to get [Levon] to take one of these theater offers for a while, explained Campbell, who has been involved with the Rambles since their inception. “For whatever reason, he was hesitant to do it.”
For his first Theater-style Ramble, Helm surrounded himself with the musicians that have become associated with his All-Star jam sessions. Along with guest Warren Haynes, who sat in on a stirring version of “I Shall Be Released,” the shows featured other Ramble veterans like New Orleans legend Dr. John, Jimmy Vivino of the Max Weinberg Seven, blues vocalist Little Sammy Davis and a backing vocals section that included Campbell’s wife Teresa Williams and Levon’s daughter Amy Helm (whose own group, Ollabelle, opened both shows).
The near-weekly Rambles, traditionally held at Helm’s upstate New York home for a couple hundred fans, began while Helm recovered from radiation therapy associated with his treatment for throat cancer. “It was a way for him to make some money without having to go anywhere,” joked Campbell with clear affection in his voice for The Band’s legendary drummer. “In the beginning, he wasn’t singing, just playing drums; Little Sammy Davis took the vocals,” explains Campbell of the Rambles’ humble roots. “It was just Levon playing drums in a blues band. Sammy’s great, but people want to hear Levon sing.” Any fears that chemotherapy would rob the world of Helm’s voice, which marks so many of The Band’s most recognizable songs, were soon quelled. When asked about any damage to Helm’s vocal cords, Campbell quickly replied that his voice sounds great. “It’s different. You hear the damage that’s been done but it’s got all the honesty and fire that’s always been there. None of that is missing. It might even be enhanced by the grittiness in his voice now. The guy is amazing, just amazing.”
Despite Campbell and others pushing him to return to a larger stage, Helm resisted the urge. “He hasn’t done a big theater show like that since the mid 90s, since The Band,” said Campbell. “He wasn’t sure how the intimacy of what we were doing up there [with the Rambles] was going to translate into a theater.” Once the opportunity to play at the Beacon Theater, a venue that the Allman Brothers Band calls home for their annual spring residency, presented itself, Campbell realized the fortuitous timing. “We all got around Levon and said, We’re ready to it. You’re ready to do it. The world is waiting to hear what Levon Helm’s been doing.’” Once the tickets sold out in 15 minutes, “it gave Levon a really good idea what’s going on out there. The first show couldn’t have gone better. He gave it everything he had and then did it again the next night. The crowd was with us from beginning to end.”
Even if Campbell tried to hide his estimable feelings for Helm, the respect and admiration are clear in his voice when discussing Helm’s career. “There’s only a few guys around that have not lost their credibility from that era,” he explains. An informed statement coming from someone who’s shared the stage with a significant number of classic rock royalty. “All those guys from the Dead, they never did anything for any other reason than the music. You gotta make a living and you want to do that as well as you can. But if you compromised the music, [the fans] wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
Campbell’s most well-known and critically lauded stint as a musician occurred while playing with another of the Sixties-era artists who hasn’t compromised himself: Bob Dylan. As part of Dylan’s Never Ending Tour group, Campbell was a central part of a band often referred to as Dylan’s best since The Band. “I’ve heard that,” Campbell says with a pleasant sense of pride. What separated this group of musicians from the dozens of others that accompanied Dylan since the early Seventies? “What made the band great when we were playing with Bob, and I thought this all along, was that we all shared a common sensitivity to the music,” said Campbell after giving the matter some serious thought. “When Bob originally came out [in the 60s] and did his solo acoustic guitar thing, he played a great acoustic guitar – great time, great feel, great groove. I saw The Band with Bob at Carnegie Hall when they did their Woody Guthrie tribute in ’68 and that was the first time I’d seen Bob with a band. I only saw him once before solo. They seemed to me like just a big extension of that acoustic guitar. It wasn’t about flashy playing, it wasn’t about hot licks, it wasn’t about anything but making that song, propelling that song. That band with Charlie [Sexton], Tony [Garnier], George [Recile] and [David] Kemper before him and myself: it had that element to it. It wasn’t about flashy playing and everyone was really sensitive to the song. That’s the only way I can see it.”