Last spring, I gave my wife Emily's father, Bill, Levon Helm's outstanding Dirt Farmer, along with Johnny Cash's Ain't No Grave. This gesture, along with our shared respect and admiration for these artists, felt like we uncovered some musical kinship, and were establishing some familial foundation.
When I read the announcement last September that The Levon Helm Band and Steve Earle were going to be playing together at The Beacon Theatre the day after Thanksgiving, it was a no-brainer. I just knew that the show was an event that Emily and I had to take her father to. (You can read my review of Steve Earle's set here)
For me, the closely released Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt are two albums that not just sound like Mr. Helm's undeniable triumphant resurgence and resurrection from his bout with throat cancer, but more so as two warm, well-worn sounding albums that sounded rich and familiar the first time I played them. These records only grew more and more comfortable and, familial the more I heard them. I say familial because whenever I've thought of going to one of Mr. Helm's Midnight Rambles, I just imagine it being a musical family affair.
The show last Friday night definitely drove home my impressions of a true musical family gathering. A gathering among family on stage, as well as fans in the crowd. This energy was unmistakable throughout the evening.
The show began as quickly as the members of the band took their places. Watching the band launch into the joyous bounce and shuffle of "Ophelia", I was completely captivated by Mr. Helm, driving the tune from behind his drumset and belting out his rich vocal growl, just above the boisterous brass band, hard hitting piano, and the lineup of musicians across the stage. It was an ideal way to break the theatre in for the evening, and one I welcomed with a wide grin and thumping foot.
A true standout of the evening for me came early on in the band's set as they eased through a gorgeous arrangement of "Long Black Veil." Teresa Williams' vocal was beautifully laced by a gently squeezed accordion, joined by some powerful mandolin tremelos by bandleader Larry Campbell. Mr. Helm's backing vocals added a graceful humanity to it all. It was just breathtaking.
Leon's daughter, Amy Helm, led the band through the bounce of "Ain't that Good News" with the full band treatment, while Brian Mitchell's piano playing and gravely vocal kickstarted "Bourgeois Blues", only to be matched again by the the fantastic and versatile horn section, along with the fiddling finesse of Larry Campbell.
From there, the show's eclectic revue style format continued to shift and jump. One of the more "animated" parts of the night, and definitely my absolute favorite moment, was when Mr. Helm came out from behind his drums set, picked up his mandolin and joined in on "Deep Ellum Blues".
As the musical break hit it's peak during the tune, Mr. Helm leaned back on his seat and began to paddle with his mandolin. It was a riot to see Mr. Helm smiling and grinning, while swinging his mandolin back and forth as he leaned back so far, almost on his back, mimicking as if he was traveling down a river himself. He just looked like he was having the time of his life, and taking us all along for the ride. His merry enthusiasm and vibrant energy was contagious and was met with many cheers and handclaps throughout the venue. It was awesome.
When I originally purchased the tickets, I was really hoping for an appearance by Steve Earle for a rendition of "The Mountain", which Mr. Helm covered on Dirt Farmer. Sure enough, Steve Earle reappeared onstage during the band's set and I was overjoyed when he introduced the tune, and the band began to kick it off.
I could go on and on here celebrating each tune and how impressed I was by the band's performance, but I'll just simply cut to the chase and leave some of my final impressions. Between "Tennessee Jed" and "The Weight" rounding out the evening's set, and the band's encore of the triumphantly rendered "I Shall Be Released", I urge everyone to go see The Levon Helm Band the next time they come to town. I challenge anybody to just go once and to resist attending again the next time the band returns. After seeing them last Friday night, I cannot wait to catch them again.
It was such a joyful, life affirming, and masterfully performed show. One not to be missed, and one that has inspired me to start pinching my pennies in the hope of attending one of Levon's Midnight Rambles!
Oh, and I would definitely recommend bringing some family and loved ones along to the show. It made the night so much sweeter.