Friday, April 12, 2013


It's quite a second career Levon Helm enjoyed.  With the deaths of his Band-mates Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, his own near-demise from a first bout of cancer, the fire at his Woodstock barn/studio, financial messes, and a long-standing feud with Robbie Robertson, Helm had enough grief to destroy most mortals.  But he survived it all, and forged a Grammy-winning recording career in the new millenium.  Plus, his fund-raising weekend jam sessions, the weekly Ramble, brought back an honesty and intimacy between the musicians and the folks who made the trek to see them play with passion, for the joy of it.  Somewhere along the line, The Weight became the anthem of roots and Americana music, and Helm the spiritual leader.  Kids not even born when The Band was working took Levon to their hearts.

While his passing in 2012 was no real surprise, once the cancer returned, the outpouring of sadness was.  The love for Levon had exploded.  A tribute was natural, but in this case Helm once more needed those fans and admiring musicians.  His dying wish was that the Rambles would continue, the Woodstock area barn/studio would stay open.  So this concert from last October was arranged, the biggest Ramble of them all.  At 20,000 seats, it was far from the 200 or so a normal Ramble would accommodate, yet the love still flowed.  It was anchored by his Levon Helm band, natch; the crack batch as always led by Helm lieutenant Larry Campbell, and featuring daughter Amy Helm on vocals.  Star players wandered off and on, including co-producer Don Was, G.E. Smith, and best of all, the great Garth Hudson.  At 75 years, he's now even more of a marvel than before, improvising new bits to his trademark solos on Chest Fever and The Weight.

The star power here is sterling.  It's not really the usual benefit bunch, but rather the names that play all the great festivals, the roots stars.  John Hiatt leads a raucous version of Rag Mama Rag, born to sing the song.  Lucinda Williams get soulful on Whispering Pines.  The duo of Greg Allman and Warren Haynes pay respect to Long Black Veil.  Mavis Staples, a great influence on the original Band sound tears up Move Along Train.  And the young Grace Potter does a terrific job of I Shall Be Released, while clearly overcome by emotion, calling it a life highlight.

Helm was all about integrity in his music, and made a lot of friends in different fields, so it's a pretty diverse group.  Eagle Joe Walsh plays with pedal steel whiz Robert Randolph on Up On Cripple Creek, while Nashville boys Eric Church and Dierks Bently are equally welcome.  Hip acts share with mainstream, as Ray LaMontagne is backed by John Mayer for Tears Of Rage.  Perhaps the oddest pairing comes from My Morning Jacket, joined by Rogers Waters, the biggest star to take the stage that night.  Turns out he and Helm bonded when Helm, Hudson and Danko guested on the Berlin concert of The Wall, and Levon blessed him with his very own ball cap.  Waters still has it, and brought it on stage as a treasured possession.

Everybody comes on stage for a grand finale of The Weight, which sure beats Let It Be for an all-star closer at this type of show.  Musically, it's a tremendous show, helped out by the excellent Helm band, complete with horns and vocalists who know the parts inside-out.  Vocally, there are some ragged moments, mostly from guests having to sing out of their range, to match the well-rehearsed arrangements by the backing players.  And, well, Waters ain't much of a singer for The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, but there are too many other great moments to counter that, such as Jakob Dylan representing the family well on the old Clarence "Frogman" Henry favourite of The Band, Ain't Got No Home.  27 songs in all, well over two hours, a bonus disc of rehearsal footage and interviews, if you love Levon or the music he championed, get a couple of like-minded friends over and watch this.

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