Levon Helm Band, Michigan Theater, Ann Arbor, MI – 3/19
Opening with “Wheels On Fire” the jump in the venue was obvious as Levon Helm took a seat behind the drum kit and the 13-piece band fired like a well oiled machine with the bouncy Band tune to start things off. The baby boomer-heavy crowd carried the energy into “Something To Remember Me By” and “Chauffer” right through “Ophelia” which Levon took the lead vocals on. To say Levon’s voice aged like a Americana wine would be fitting, but it’s more that his howling tenor is now complemented by a feminine punch with his familiar bounce and hitch (both vocally and instrumentally) as his daughter Amy Helm shares vocal duties and played drums for a tune or two.
The roughly 2-hour show ranged from the popping second line horns and Nawlins keyboard work of Brian Mitchell (Allen Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down” & The Wild Tchoupitoulas “Meet The Boys On The Battle Front.) to classic rhythm and blues like “It’s Too Late” and “Good News.” Guitarist Larry Campbell took over on vocals for the former, before the ladies took over for the Sam Cooke tune and a pairing of two Hazel Dickens songs with Amy Helm and Theresa Williams beautifully trading a backwoods snarl back and forth. Next, Levon picked up his mandolin as Amy took his seat behind the drum kit for “Got Me A Woman (Or Stealin’).” Then Amy joined Levon at the front of the stage for a take on “Little Birds” from Levon’s 2009 album Dirt Farmer. Amy’s voice crested perfectly onto a few vocal runs to wrap up the soothing tune as Levon looked up accomplished at his daughter as he strummed the final notes of “Birds,” smiled and said “Beautiful,” with a look of pure joy as the crowd gave Amy a round of applause.
Levon hopped back behind his kit for a drum duel during a cover of The Wild Tchoupitoulas “Meet Them Boys on The Battle Front” complete with the horns section circling the stage in the Mardi Gras borne cover. Keeping with covers, a true highlight of the evening came next as the 13-piece big band ripped through the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed.” Covered as the first track on his 2007 album Electric Dirt, Levon took the lead on mandolin and the vocals for the slow, southern stomp version of “Jed.”
The remaining 6 songs of the set alternated between solo tracks from Levon’s canon and Band classics like “Lonesome Suzie” “Chest Fever” and closer “The Weight.” As the crowd clapped for another encore and out came Amy, Levon, Theresa and Larry for an cappella version of “Gloryland” as the house lights shined.
Seeing a legend like Levon Helm perform live you see exactly what makes them legendary, and many of the times it seems to be the company that they keep helps push them farther. Just like with the Band, every musician on stage had enough gusto and charisma to front their own groups, however, this yielded a perfect mix with each able to grab center stage while trading off genres from the New Orleans snarl of Brian Mitchell to the sweet southern drawl of Amy Helm and Teresa all interwoven with Levon taking the lead on classic Band tunes and “Tennessee Jed.” While Levon didn’t take vocal lead on every song, it wasn’t as if he did full time with The Band. To be a truly great voice you must to coexist among other great voices and that is definitely something Levon Helm has always done.