Music Review

The Night They Drove Old Man Trouble Down

Levon Helm performing with his band at the Beacon.
By JON PARELES
Published: March 10, 2008


 

 

 

 

 

 

Rahav Segev for The New York Times

Routes from the Appalachians, the bayou, Texas, Chicago, Memphis, New York and New Orleans converge at a geographically unlikely but historically proven nexus: Woodstock, N.Y., where Levon Helm has a home studio in a barn. Mr. Helm, 67, played drums and sang in the Band, which recorded “The Basement Tapes” with Bob Dylan and made its indelible debut album in neighboring West Saugerties, N.Y. He has been putting on monthly concerts in Woodstock called Midnight Rambles since 2005. At those shows, Mr. Helm leads a core band while friends drop in, and lately he has taken the idea on the road.

On Friday night, starting a two-night stand at the Beacon Theater, the Levon Helm Band’s show was a romping rock-R&B-country-blues revue. It had guitarists (Larry Campbell and Jimmy Vivino) who dispensed ragtime, blues-rock and more; a five-man horn section that played soul riffs and raucous traditional jazz; female singers representing country, soul and rock; and a repertory spanning a good stretch of the 20th century.

In a way, Mr. Helm was unraveling the strands of American music that he and the Band had entwined. Nearly all the songs were old, from the Band and from the Americana archives. And many were forlorn, whether they were honky-tonk weepers or jovial shuffles. They were bound by Mr. Helm’s stalwart yet flexible drumming and, often, his backwoods yowl of a voice, fully recovered from throat cancer. After more than two hours onstage — drumming, singing, playing mandolin — a grinning Mr. Helm stood up and did jumping jacks.

Mr. Helm’s drum kit was placed sideways on the band’s right flank, making all the subtlety of his playing visible. He had the bedrock timing and well-chosen patterns of a great roadhouse drummer, but was never mechanical. He chose whether each cymbal tap would ring or hiss, and he kicked verses toward choruses with a different syncopated flourish every time around.

He didn’t sing the whole set. Other band members took turns and so did guests including Phoebe Snow, belting high notes to please the crowd; she sang Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” a song he recorded in Woodstock. Little Sammy Davis, in a derby hat, sang the blues and played harmonicas he pulled from pockets of his tuxedo. Teresa Williams brought a true country twang to songs like “Long Black Veil,” and Catherine Russell strutted through a song Marcia Ball has recorded, “Soulful Dress.”

One Midnight Ramble regular was missing: Mr. Helm’s daughter, Amy Helm. She’s a member of the opening band, Ollabelle, but she just gave birth to his grandson, named Levon. (Her husband, Jay Collins, played saxophone in the horn section.)

Mr. Helm performed only a few songs from “Dirt Farmer” (Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard), the Grammy-winning acoustic album he released last year. One was “Anna Lee,” a stark waltz about a mother’s death, accompanied only by Mr. Campbell’s fiddle and mountain-harmony vocals from Ms. Williams and Ms. Russell. But most of the set was upbeat, with the horns pumping up the party spirit. For the Levon Helm Band, the way to face trouble is with a clear gaze, a steady backbeat and an ornery voice.

 

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