Levon Helm Band, Beacon Theatre, NYC- 3/7
Close to a year after he sold out two shows at New York City’s Beacon Theater, the first performances in years outside the confines of his Woodstock ranch, Levon Helm returned to the Beacon a year older and a Grammy richer. Helm’s shows are notable for the large number of gifted veterans that make up his band; only someone with Helm’s pedigree and pleasant demeanor could assemble such a fine group. Anchoring the band with Helm are guitarists Larry Campbell and Jimmy Vivino, whose years of experience and pliant versatility make them superb complements and foils for Helm. The skillful performers don’t end there: Helm customarily rounds out his group with bassist Mike Merritt, keyboardists Brian Mitchell & Gary Patscha (Ollabelle), singer/guitarist Teresa Williams, blues /harmonica player Little Sammy Davis and a horn section comprised of Steven Bernstein, Eric Lawrence, Howard Johnson, Clark Gayton and Jay Collins. A benevolent oligarchy, everyone on stage gets their moment to shine as the show unfolds in an intricate interlocking pattern of country, blues and classic rock.
Looking slightly frail and extremely dapper, Helm led his band on stage with his jacket jauntily draped over his shoulders. Playing with a single black glove on his left hand (the only way Levon Helm and Michael Jackson might ever get mentioned in the same sentence), Helm wasted little time in getting down to business, quickly leading the band into a salty rendition of “Ophelia.” Friday night’s Beacon show had three distinct interweaving components: traditional songs in the style of and from Helm’s Grammy-winning album The Dirt Farmer; old-school, blues-based standards and classic rock staples from The Band’s rich back catalog. When not strolling pleasurably down memory lane and offering a satisfying jolt of nostalgia to his long time fans, Helm and his band showcased music that over time evolved into the most popular and celebrated strains of rock and roll. In reviving many of these numbers, Helm paid homage to the classic rock style for which he’ll always be remembered by playing the music from which it was spawned.
Vivino offered a wonderful interpretation of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got A Home” and by taking the wheeze out of The Band’s “Tears Of Rage,” put some manly muscle back into the song. Campbell handled lead on an acoustic romp through “Deep Elem Blues” but it was his rendition of “Chest Fever” that electrified the Beacon. The song is a wonderful match for Campbell’s voice and gives him wide latitude to experiment on the solos, especially when he busts out the familiar organ intro on his guitar. “Did You Ever Love Me,” a Campbell original and one of the few originals played during the night, sat nicely amidst the set’s country tinged material, his deep voice mixing sweetly and harmoniously with his wife Teresa’s lead vocals.
When Levon took to the middle of the stage to sing or play mandolin, Ollabelle’s drummer Tony Leone jumped behind the kit. With his long black beard, Leone bears more than a slight resemblance to a younger Helm and a time warp effect could be detected while the two shared the stage together. As they do whenever they are in the building, the members of Ollabelle, who offered a wonderfully rootsy opening set that included a moving version of “John The Revelator,” all appeared during the main set. Ollabelle’s most recognizable member, Levon’s daughter Amy, was noticeably absent but for good reason: she had recently given birth to a son, Levon. At every mention of his newborn grandson, the grandfather beamed radiantly with pride.
Helm invested the selections from The Dirt Farmer with an enriched sense of poignancy. “Got Me A Woman,” bounced along on his playful delivery of the song’s slightly goofy lyrics and “False Hearted Lover Blues” ambled along on the strength of Campbell, Vivino and Teresa Williams’ triple barreled acoustic guitar onslaught. In step with The Dirt Farmer’s vibe, Williams offered an absolutely haunting rendition of “Long Black Veil” that would have been the night’s most moving moment were it not for a sparse rendition of “Anna Lee.” With Larry Campbell providing the mournful melody on his violin, Helm, Williams and Catherine Russell delivered a mesmerizing version of the song before a rapt audience.
Levon’s road shows are always good for a guest appearance or two and this night’s show was no exception. Phoebe Snow, one of the great voices of the Seventies, who never seemed to find a niche to call her own, found a home within Helm’s band. After warming up by enhancing the blues within “Tossin’ & Turnin’,” Snow offered a captivating rendition of Van Morrison’s “Into The Mystic.” It was a wonderful return to the Beacon for Snow.
During The Band tunes, the Beacon Theater definitely lightened with a palpable electricity and the horn section accentuated and punctuated many of The Band classics, confidently working out different variations of “The Shape I’m In” while passing the solo down the line. As you would expect, The Band’s familiar songs played a large role in the encore. With so many people on stage, the traditional encore break was treated like a stop sign on one of the old deserted country roads envisioned by one of the evening’s traditionally based songs. Slowing down but rolling right through, everyone who wasn’t on stage returned for an all-hands-on-deck run through “I Shall Be Released” and “The Weight.” Helm’s raspy vocals contrasted beautifully with Snow’s still-soulful pipes and everyone who had a microphone got to join in on a verse or two.
The empowering spirit of rock and roll let its presence be felt during the set-closing version of “Chest Fever.” With the attention focused on Campbell and Vivino letting loose on center stage, Helm had one of his few moments outside of the spotlight. With his eyes closed, Helm bashed out the song’s drum beat, one of the heaviest he offered that night. As he played, a smile emerged on his face that deucedly differed from the happy, playful one that Helm typically sports. When he opened his eyes, there was an intensity to his expression and it was clear that at that moment Levon didn’t consider himself a 67-year-old grandfather who had survived a battle with throat cancer. No, no, no. In Levon’s mind, he was once again one of the baddest drummers on the planet, one of the greatest of all time. Watching that transformation occur, you could only bow your head and show your respects to the restorative power of rock and roll.