|Levon Helm Band w/ special guest Donald Fagan - Electric Factory, Philadelphia, PA, 03/28/2009
The story goes something like thisÖ The [latter day] Band "officially" disbanded in 1998, following the death of bassist Rick Danko. At the time, legendary vocalist/drummer/mandolin player/actor Levon Helm was contending with a major crisis of his own; aggressive treatment for throat cancer threatened to permanently deprive him of his voice. He retired (indefinitely) to his home studio/rehearsal space in Woodstock, New York. He jammed with musician friends passing through the area on their respective tours. He collaborated with a young group of "new traditionalist" artists that included his daughter Amy Helm and members of her band Ollabelle. Informal sessions morphed into public performances designed to raise money for his mounting healthcare costs. The concerts, billed as "Midnight Rambles," provided Helm with a fertile creative outlet and laid the groundwork for his next recording project, the critically-acclaimed Dirt Farmer, which garnered a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk album (2008). Armed with a rotating cast of "Midnight Ramblers," Levon Helm returned to the road for the first time in years to promote the record. Kindweb caught Helm and company, along with special guest Donald Fagan (Steely Dan), at Philadelphiaís Electric Factory, on March 28, 2009.
The musicians were arranged on the Electric Factory stage to recreate a Midnight Ramble. Levonís drum kit was positioned sideways, stage right, so that each and every nuance of his playing would be visible to the audience. Bassist Byron Isaacs (upright bass) stood directly behind Levon. Multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (vocals, acoustic & electric guitar, mandolin, fiddle), a veteran of Bob Dylanís Never Ending Tour band, stood center stage. He was flanked by wife Teresa Williams (vocals, acoustic guitar) and Amy Helm (vocals, mandolin, and occasional drums). Amyís husband Jay Collins (saxophones) was one of four horn players positioned at the rear of the center stage area. The left side of the stage was inhabited by Brian Mitchell (vocals, organ, piano, accordion) and Donald Fagan (vocals, organ, piano, hooter). Ollabelleís Tony Leone waited in the wings to man the skins on several tracks while Levon strummed his mandolin.
The ensemble opened with a rousing rendition of The Bandís "Ophelia" that sounded as New Orleans-swampy as a Dr. John record. Looking tired but happy, Helm managed to conjure up an energy level larger than his diminutive frame.
The set-list featured selections from Dirt Farmer (i.e., "Got Me A Woman," "Anna Lee," and "Train Robbery") along with classic tracks from The Band ("Rag Mama Rag," "Across the Great Divide," "King Harvest," "The Shape I'm In") and a few well-chosen covers. Wisely, Helmís lead vocal numbers were interspersed with vocal contributions from daughter Amy Helm and other various band members. Brian Mitchell turned in a jazzy reading of Dylanís "Simple Twist of Fate" and had much of the audience singing along with "The Bourgeois Blues." Larry Campbell sang the traditional "Deep Elem Blues," while Teresa Williams turned in a soulful "Long Black Veil."
The camaraderie was contagious as the audience witnessed the players switching instruments, laughing at each other, discussing chord progressions, etc. At one point, the horn section danced across the front of the stage in mock-choreography. Levon signaled to the crowd that his heart was fluttering when daughter Amy sang an angelic lead vocal and gave drummer Tony Leone a thumbs up while playing mandolin from center stage.
Concert highlights include Donald Faganís reading of his own Steely Dan classic, "Black Friday," and the show-closing trilogy of Band classics consisting of "Chest Fever" (sung by Larry Campbell), "The Weight," and the powerful encore of "I Shall Be Released," complete with traded verses from various band members.
By the end of the evening, the air in the Electric Factory was positively charged. The connection between performer and audience was best summed up by a brief exchange between Levon and a concert-goer. Upon hearing a manís disembodied voice call out from the darkness between songs, "We love you, Levon!" Helm replies, "We love you, too, brother."
According to a stage announcement by Larry Campbell, recording sessions for Levon Helmís follow-up to Dirt Farmer have concluded and a new album is slated for release in late spring of 2009.
-Photo courtesy of Jim and Barb Knoblock