Roger Waters, Gregg Allman, John Mayer, My Morning Jacket, Mike Gordon, Warren Haynes, Jaimoe, Jorma and More Share the Love For Levon
Photos by Dino Perrucci
Roger Waters, My Morning Jacket, Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes, John Mayer, Grace Potter, Garth Hudson and Phish bassist Mike Gordon were among the the many musicians who celebrated the life of Band drummer Levon Helm last night. Dubbed the Love For Levon show, the celebration took place at East Rutherford, NJ’s IZOD Center last night. One by one, artists from all across the musical spectrum took the stage to put their spin on The Band’s classic tunes.
The show started off strong as Warren Haynes, a longtime friend of Helm’s and an early participant in his Ramble Sessions, took the stage for “The Shape I’m In”. Haynes was joined by the Levon Helm Band, including Larry Campbell (guitar, fiddle), Brian Mitchell (piano), Byron Issacs (bass), Amy Helm and Teresa Williams (vocals), Justin Guip (drums) and Jim Weider (guitar), who replaced Robbie Robertson in The Band, as well as the Levon Helm Band Horns (Erik Lawrence, Howard Johnson, Steven Bernstein, Jay Collins, Clark Gayton). This band, which backed Levon in the last years of his life, would play the role of backing band for most of the evening. Noted producer Don Was—the evening’s co-musical director— also played bass for much of the night, while drummers Steve Jordan and Kenny Aronoff both filled in for Helm at various points.
Campbell also appeared to be the unofficial “Master of Ceremonies” throughout the night. After finishing up the first tune, Haynes was joined by his Allman Brothers Bandmate Gregg Allman for “Long Black Veil.” In what would be the first of many surprises, Allman played acoustic guitar on the classic ballad.
The Levon Helm Band was joined by drummer Shawn Pelton for a rendition of “This Wheel’s On Fire” as Campbell announced that the Levon Helm Band was now the “Midnight Ramble Band.”
Allen Toussaint, who arranged horns for a number of The Band’s albums and the Last Waltz concert, was joined by original Allman Brothers Band drummer and unannounced guest Jaimoe for a crowd pleasing version of “Life Is A Carnival.” Next, John Prine and Garth Hudson—one of two surviving members of the original Band—emerged for a moving take on “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Then, Bruce Hornsby took the stage to play dulcimer on “Anna Lee” and The Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan and Rami Jaffe performed “Ain’t Got No Home” with Helm’s band (Helm has known the younger Dylan since he was born and played with The Wallflowers in Saratoga Springs, NY In 1997). Jaffe played keys with the show’s house band for much of the night.
Lucinda Williams came out for an incredibly soulful rendition of “Whispering Pines” as the whole crowd went silent for a few minutes. The audience was generally respectful throughout the show but this was one of a few more poignant moments, when everyone knew they needed keep their mouth shut. “God bless Levon Helm, his spirit lives on,” said Williams as she left stage. Williams was followed by John Hiatt and Mike Gordon, who brought the mood back to jovial with their take on “Rag Mama Rag.” Gordon was the only member of Phish to play with Levon at one of his Rambles. This marked the end of the night’s first set.
While set one was certainly a crowd-pleaser, set two took the whole thing to a new level. Grace Potter gave what was arguably the best solo performance of the evening, with her rendition of the “I Shall Be Released.” “This is one of the great pleasures of my life,” she said, in reference to Neil Young’s remark before “Helpless” during The Last Waltz. Potter did it all alone, taking up vocal and organ duties on the Bob Dylan classic, which felt more relevant than ever given the circumstances. The crowd soaked it all up in what seemed to be a collectively transcendental moment for everyone in the audience. As the last note faded into silence and the silence faded into applause, I half expected a thousand roses to go flying Potter’s way.
John Mayer and Ray LaMontagne then took the stage for a fantastic “Tears of Rage.” LaMontagne, who had played with Helm in the past, really gave his all to the song, as every note was filled a genuine sadness reminiscent of the way Richard Manuel used to do it. Mayer held it down on guitar, as vocal issues kept him from singing all night.
Dierks Bentley, Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander and Garth Hudson got everyone up on their feet for “Chest Fever.” In what was another pleasant surprise, Hudson opened the song with an extended organ solo before moving into the song’s trademark intro, a move that put a smile on everybody’s face. After seeing the way the crowd reacted to those first few notes, it’s no wonder The Band chose the tune as the opener to their set at Woodstock.
The second biggest surprise of the night (the biggest was yet to come) might have been John Mayer sharing guitar duties with Larry Campbell on “Tennessee Jed.” The Grateful Dead classic was covered by Helm on his album Electric Dirt, and while its no wonder the song was performed, the choice of John Mayer was certainly interesting. And it wasn’t bad in the slightest. Mayer is obviously no Jerry Garcia, but he held his own throughout the tune, especially during the solo. It wasn’t the Dead, but it was a satisfying tribute nonetheless.
“Tennessee Jed” was followed an absolutely rocking version of “Up On Cripple Creek” with Joe Walsh on guitar and Robert Randolph on pedal steel. Randolph tore the song to pieces as he shredded away during two extended jams. Walsh sounded more like latter day Levon Helm than anyone else who took the stage last night. Together they did the song justice, giving the audience the most purely rock n roll moment of the night.
After “Cripple Creek”, the newly christened Midnight Ramble Band left the stage to make way for My Morning Jacket. The band did their take on “Ophelia” and “Makes No Difference” before bringing on the biggest name of the night for what would be the show’s most surprising collaboration.
Roger Waters came out on stage without even being announced. He held up a red baseball cap and told the crowd about the time, more than twenty years earlier, when Levon gave him the cap before Waters played “The Wall” in Berlin. “It’s been my fishing hat ever since” said Waters, “And this will be with me till the day I die.” On that note, My Morning Jacket and Roger Waters began playing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” It was as special moment as I’ve ever witnessed on stage. Everyone knew the song was going to be played, but the combination of Roger Waters and My Morning Jacket was truly unexpected. It’s a time I will remember “oh so well.”
The show ended— as many thought it would— with all of the evening’s guests taking the stage for a rendition of “The Weight.” Gregg Allman, Roger Waters and Mavis Staples took on lead vocals, as the musicians, and the crowd, bid farewell to Levon one last time. There will never be a musician quite like Levon Helm, just as there will probably never be a concert quite like this one. It was like nothing I’ve ever experienced or probably ever will again. Levon Helm would be happy to know how much love there was for him last night.
Love For Levon Setlist
“The Shape I’m In” (Warren Haynes)
“Long Black Veil” (Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes)
“Trouble in Mind” (Jorma Kaukonen and Barry Mitterhoff)
“This Wheel’s on Fire” (the Midnight Ramble Band, Shawn
“Little Birds,” (the Midnight Ramble Band, Amy Helm on lead vocals)
“Listening to Levon” (Marc Cohn)
“Move Along Train” (Mavis Staples)
“Life is a Carnival” (Allen Toussaint and Jaimoe)
“When I Paint My Masterpiece” (John Prine and Garth Hudson)
“Anna Lee” (Bruce Hornsby)
“Ain’t Got No Home” (The Wallflowers’ Rami Jaffee and Jakob Dylan)
“Whispering Pines” ( Lucinda Williams)
“Rag Mama Rag” (John Hiatt and Mike Gordon)
“ Don’t Do It” (David Bromberg and Joan Osborne)
“I Shall Be Released” (Grace Potter)
“Tears of Rage” (Ray LaMontagne, John Mayer)
“Rockin’ Chair” (Dierks Bentley, Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander)
“Chest Fever” (Dierks Bentley, Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander, Garth
“A Train Robbery” (Eric Church)
“Get Up Jake, (Eric Church)
“Tennessee Jed” (Larry Campbell, John Mayer)
“Up on Cripple Creek” (Joe Walsh,Robert Randolph)
“Ophelia” (My Morning Jacket with Levon Helm Horns)
“It Makes No Difference” (My Morning Jacket with Levon Helm Horns)
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (Roger Waters, GE Smith, My Morning Jacket)
“Wide River to Cross” (Roger Waters and Amy Helm)
“The Weight” (entire cast. Gregg Allman, Waters, Mavis Staples
share lead vocals)