Concert Review: Legend Levon Helm Endures With Roots Celebration Despite Odds
Ex-Band Vocalist Solidifies Comeback Effort With Tour
By David Hyland
(Originally published March 2012)
MILWAUKEE — In 1970, the Band recorded a song called “Daniel and the Sacred Harp,” a yearning strummer in which the protagonist trades his virtue and eventually, his life for supernatural musical ability. Many listeners rightly thought it an allegory on the deal the working performer makes to have a musician’s life on the road.
Nearly 42 years later, a songwriting fiction has seemingly turned into fact.
Those who gathered on Tuesday night for the first of a two-night stand at the Northern Lights Theater at the Potawatomi Bingo Casino in Milwaukee saw Levon Helm, the man who gave voice to that song ages ago, and how he clearly shares a similar fate as Daniel. Fans were offered glimpses of the majestic musical rewards of Helm’s own bargain, and yet, the disconcerting price that he has paid. They saw a nearly-skeletal Helm, with a seriously ravaged voice, who could still enthrall with his passion and adeptness with all make of American roots music. But, not even his extraordinary performance and the adroit efforts of his 13-piece band could fully shake the tragic elements borne of his dedication.
When it came time for Helm himself to make his choice at the proverbial crossroads in the late ’50s, he jumped in head first. Ever since the rock legend escaped his family’s Arkansas farm as a teenager, ditching a plow and hard-scrabbling for hell-raising at North American road houses behind a drum kit, Helm committed himself to touring and a musical life. And the first part of the deal paid off handsomely. Helm gained international fame and fortune. He became a bonafide rock-music icon as a member of Bob Dylan’s first electric backing band and one of the ’60s most celebrated rock groups. Most recently, he nabbed Grammy awards in the last three years for solo albums championing forgotten songs and sounds inherent in America’s musical DNA.
In the flesh however, this was not a sight to behold. A horribly gaunt Helm looked well beyond his 71 years. Years of substance abuse, chain smoking, financial pressures and most recently, throat cancer, have ground Helm down from a bearded, singing version of the Marlboro Man to a frail-looking old man. The blue dress shirt and black track pants that he wore looked far too roomy for him. (During Tuesday’s performance, Helm’s daughter, Amy, rarely took her eyes off her father and a humidifier, discreetly hidden behind a stage monitor, appeared to help his battered vocal chords.)
Like a hobbled hero, Helm’s stamina and stubborn endurance demonstrates a remarkable courage as it’s clear that whatever his wounds, they’re debilitating. And while this alarming sight framed so much of his and the group’s performance, Helm’s charisma and musicality shone through a body as withered husk. Few could and can deny his place near the fountainhead of this kind of music, and he and his band appear ready to prove the boldness of this claim nightly.
The group’s 18-song set list was a musical gumbo that drew on of blues, old-time country, old-school R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and New Orleans funk. The inclusion of a couple of Band gems were to satisfy an easy-chair audience, but still seemed an unnecessary concession. Helm has organized a combo of singers and multi-instrumentalists whose function and purpose outstrips any suspicions that these are surrogates for a reunion that will never happen. More than that, Helm and his band offer a tour of musical Americana that is celebratory, educational and completely unique all at the same time.
The music and the musicians were in constant motion. With Helm anchored in the drum stool on stage right, his band changed stylistic direction and instrumentation song after song. And most indicative of their remarkable philosophy, although the group might use Helm’s name on the posters, he passed around the front position as if they were trading songs around a campfire.
Daughter Amy sang a strong, Sheryl Crow-ionized version of “Somethin’ to Remember” that, with the help of the horn section, transcended easy-listening territory to something more affecting. When it was vocalist Teresa Williams’ turn, she belted out “Chauffer” that strutted above some gritty guitar squawks and Helm’s heartbeat kick drum to beautifully blend big-city blues with Bayou funk. (Indicative of the generous spirit the group gave off that when it was Williams’ turn to sing, Helm pumped his drumstick-clenching hands in the air to cheer her on.)
Helm’s own star turns were conserved and sprinkled throughout the set. Like a beloved, elderly family member in need of constant assistance, the group conformed around him, harmonizing to provide some vocal heft and instrumental passes to further sell a song. One gets the sense that the sharing of spotlight is as much as an aesthetic decision as a practical one given Helm’s reduced vocal strength.
Shared labor was something immediately apparent throughout the performance. It was an idea that surely had its root in Helm’s days in the Band, but something that until recently, he was never able carry off. Although Helm was certainly the most well-rounded musical force in the Band’s original lineup, he was never much of a songwriter, nor has he dispatched the bar-band impulses that were instilled in him early when he and his future Band-mates were on rockabilly circuit. Helm might have the musical goods, but he hasn’t always known what to do with them. Luckily, he has his daughter and his musical director, guitarist Larry Campbell, to steer a course.
Campbell, a consummate sideman who, like Helm, was once a backup player for Dylan, was the key catalyst in Helm’s career rebirth. Likely Campbell’s most important contribution has been convincing Helm not to recreate the Band as it was, but in conceiving a new ensemble that followed its predecessor’s core premise: A selfless group of musician’s musicians who share the spotlight and function as a kind of American jukebox. Everything since Helm and Campbell hatched their plot has been one of the more unlikely comebacks in recent memory and certainly an overdue chance to hail the achievements of one of music’s elder statesmen.
That celebration crisscrossed from the high-energy, jive-y “Good News” to an excellent, dark reading of Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell,” that showcased Campbell and Helm trading verses and the horns answering each line with a mournful wail. On “Got Me a Woman,” father and daughter switched places as Helm picked up a mandolin and sat at center stage while his daughter played the drums. The song, popularized by Waylon Jennings, was fun ditty that harkened back to the tongue-in-cheek, hapless characters that Helm often embodied in song during the Band days. A midtempo, more intense take of Band material like “This Wheel’s On Fire” and “Just Another Whistle Stop” reinforced Helm’s personal linkages to a sound that is often crudely labeled as country-rock, Americana or alt. country.
Those personal connections came into play when Helm and the group would unplug and gather around to play haunting mountain music. Such moments were the most awe-inspiring moments of the concert and presented the image approximating a kind of down-home, family sound. Songs like “Poor Old Dirt Farmer” and “Hills of Home” featured reverential, mandolin-laced sing-alongs with exquisite, “O’ Brother Where Art Thou”-style vocal harmonies from Campbell, Williams, Amy Helm and others. For “Little Birds,” Amy Helm sang like an Appalachian siren calling out a warning to all those within the sound of her voice. The song has special family connotations as Levon had learned it from his father and according to Campbell, he has now passed it on to his daughter.
As expected, Helm and his band concluded with a bombastic take on the Band classic, “The Weight.” Helm’s voice came in a couple of words late and you could see the group and the entire audience hold their breath until it kicked in. (Perhaps by coincidence, “Nazereth” of “Pulled into Nazareth …” was the first word heard.) The song was cheerful in spite of being rather routine. Most intriguing was how Helm traded verses with the other musicians, symbolically emphasizing the spirit of old-time roots and musical friendship that he is intent on passing to the future generations.
After coming back for an encore, Helm, his daughter, Campbell and Williams returned for one last mountain tune. They gathered around the microphones to wind down the audience with a reverential, acapella take on Ralph Stanley’s “Gloryland.” They sang in unison, like representatives of a backwoods community overlooked by the modern age. Helm’s gritty wail aching through the countrified angelic harmonies. The performance was a musical statement of “the sermon has ended.”
Whether the audience truly caught the spirit or not, Helm and company made an appealing case for converts — at least for part of the trip. During one of the quiet interludes between songs, an audience member yelled out a request for “Daniel And The Sacred Harp.” It wasn’t surprising when it was ignored. The whole concert was a testimony to a real-life rendition of the tale — the agonies and the ecstasies — and Helm didn’t need to underline the point.
According to Helm, there are some things worth singing and playing despite the pain and anguish. You can still find joy and redemption. For him, that’s what life is.
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Note: David’s music column, Soundbytes, appears Wednesdays in Internet Broadcasting’s Entertainment section. This column was originally published there.
Copyright 2012 David Hyland