Levon Helm @ Merlefest
April 26, 2008
By Grant Britt
If you were looking for the high and lonesome, you had to do some rooting around to dig it up at Merlefest on Saturday. Headliners Rhonda Vincent, and Tony Rice and Peter Rowan provided the purest mountain music during the day, but after the sun went down, even Doc Watson used his time to play old standards and rock chestnuts. Though the crowd sat politely for Ricky Skaggs set hoping for some Kentucky Thunder as advertised, little was forthcoming. Skaggs’s prime time Saturday night show was taken over by Bruce Hornsby, who turned it into a 45 minute personal set of noodling on his tedious faux jazz.
But it was the artist most folks categorize as a rocker who offered a better sampling of roots music than any act all day.
Levon Helm is a survivor. Diagnosed with throat cancer in 1996, Helm was advised to have his larynx removed. The singer opted instead to undergo rigorous radiation treatments to save his voice. He was unable to sing for years, able to communicate verbally in a soft rasp. But in 2004, he started singing again, and as he showed Saturday night, he’s back in top form.
Opening with "Ophelia," Helm and his band recreated a harder rocking version of the Band with more diversity. His flat Arkansas twang is more prevalent than ever, adding an earthy charm to Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.”
But this group won’t be snagged in folk or any other genre for long. This is a rockin’ outfit that sounds like a bar band with a horn section like the Memphis horns. Chuck Berry’s “Goin’ Back to Memphis,” rocks much harder than the 1977 version recorded live with the RCO Allstars in New York City.
To assist him on his genre-blending journey, Helm has put together another band of allstars including his daughter, Amy. Guitarist Larry Campbell is a former member of Dylan’s band and a current touring member of Phil Lesh and friends. He also co-produced (with Amy) Helm’s Grammy winning ’07 release “Dirt Farmer.” Three female vocalists, including Campbell’s wife, Teresa Williams, sound like Ray Charles’ backing group the Raelettes, providing a glorious gospel backing to Helm’s rocky twang on “I Wanna Know/Stand By Me.” Trumpeter Jimmy Vivino, from late night TV host Conan O’Brien’s backing band, the Max Weinberg 7, adds a high register punch to the horn section, which gives the band a sound like a r&b review from the '60s. He’s even got a keyboard player, Brian Mitchell, who can sing like Rick Danko and play like Garth Hudson.
But it’s not all rock and roll. Helm brings up Sam Bush for some country honk on “Got Me A Woman,” from “Dirt Farmer,” switching to mandolin. Helm’s vocals are strong, yet plain as an old shoe, country as all get-out. Duets with daughter Amy are Cajun-flavored, and his take on Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” is spicy, Zydeco-flavored country. Helm pays homage to New Orleans with a second line groove on “Deep Ellum Blues.” But Helm really touches a nerve on Greensboro songwriter Laurelyn Dossett’s (Polecat Creek) song “Annalee,” from “Dirt Farmer.” Helm’s stark vocals, accompanied by the three female singers and a fiddle, gives you chills.
“Rag Mama Rag” is a harder edged country version than the Band’s. But just when you think you’ve got the genre nailed down, Helm throws a curve at you with a tuba jumping in, then a fiddle break, then back to rock for a glorious genre tangle.
Helm and company turn in a house rocking version of “The Shape I’m In,” then chill things out with Amy’s rendition of “Long Black Veil,” done in a twang that would be right at home in the throat of June Carter Cash.
By the time the band slams into “The Weight,” Helm looks like he’s dropped 10 years. His face is radiant as his girls back him up, sounding as sweet and sexy as the Staples did on the Last Waltz.
Thirty years later, to not only have his voice back again, but at age 68 to have it as clear and sharp as it was when he was at 36, when the band performed it’s Last Waltz in 1976, is something for both artist and audience to celebrate. Come party with him every chance you get.