Monday, August 16, 2010

The Return of Levon Helm

LAST night I was lucky enough to catch Levon Helm, former drummer for The Band and one of the great comeback stories in rock music. The show was about as stirring as any I've seen lately, and ended as a kind of celebration of American roots music in its many guises and -- especially thanks to an appearance by Steve Earle -- made explicit Helm's role as a father figure to the alt-country movement.

Helm, who led a 11-piece band complete with horn section, opened with "Ophelia" and played a number of Band classics ("The Shape I'm In," "It Makes No Difference") as well as Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues," Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell," and some New Orleans number led by the pianist playing in a Professor Longhair/ James Booker style.

He's still suffering some of the effects of throat cancer, so the Arkansas-born Helm sang only a few the songs. Even in the old days of the Band,  of course, Helm was one of several singers, and only the leader of the group in a symbolic sense, since he was the only American in this group dedicated to reviving lost strains of American music. And the group, which was built out of the Midnight Rambles held at his Woodstock farm, featured several good singers, with fiddler/guitarist Larry Campbell often taking the lead.

The big surprise for me was Steve Earle. I've always respected the gruff troubadour's songwriting genius and politicized anger -- it's hard to disagree with his anti-corporate point of view in these troubled times -- but found him sometimes too harsh for my taste. Last night he played on only a few songs -- including a stirring number from a recent Helm record and the Stones classic "Sweet Virginia" -- and he was biting and gracious in equal measure: I'll see the dude again anytime.

The encore brought Earle back, as well as -- you guessed it -- Harry Dean Stanton, to perform big, moving versions of "The Weight" and "I Shall Be Released." Punk and post-punk bands made fun of this sort of thing, but rarely has it seemed more justified.

Jenny Lewis, best known for her leadership of Rilo Kiley, warmed up for Helm after an opening spot for Jim Bianco (which I missed.) Lewis was better than expected, performing in front of a 7-piece band with a combination of sultriness and indie diffidence almost shading into hostility. Her new song, "Just One of the Boys," was among the best, and her band closed with a lovely a capella song that made a perfect final note before Helm's appearance.

This was a show about an important musician who has not performed in LA in three decades, who has beaten what could have been a fatal disease and outlived several members of a star-crossed group. It's very hard to explain what the sensation was of seeing this 70-year-old demigod drumming, playing mandolin, straining to sing his old songs. It was -- a term I almost never use -- an evening of triumph, and the kind of thing where you really had to be there. I'm very glad I was.


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Pete Bilderback said...

Scott, I'm surprised to see you writing about someone so closely associated with East Coast culture. Helm is still a central figure in all the artistic goings on in the Upstate NY/Woodstock area.

Scott Timberg said...

Indeed, Pete -- some figures transcend my West Coast bias!