It took awhile, but the Levon Helm Band finally made it to California soil. Ever since the iconic drummer of the Band returned to performing after a nearly career-ending bout with throat cancer about a decade ago, he’s rarely played beyond the northeast. In fact, he’s rarely even left the grounds of his property in the Catskill Mountains of Woodstock, New York. Instead, he chooses to have the audience come to his home studio where he conducts an evening of music with special guests in what is now famously known as "The Midnight Rambles.” With two Grammy award-winning albums, Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, released over the past few years and having yet to support them on the Pacific Coast, it was about time for the Ramble to head out west. After taking the road show through Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, the tour concluded on August 15th at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre, where the Band played one of their last gigs back in 1976. Now decades later, the 70 year old living legend had returned with his current band to deliver a majestic two hour set celebrating his rich musical history. At the same time, it was a celebration of American roots rock, as it always is with Levon, one of the music’s greatest champions and torchbearers.
Rilo Kiley singer Jenny Lewis and her band opened the show, showcasing material from her first solo effort “Acid Tongue” and her upcoming project with boyfriend Jonathan Rice, titled “I’m Having Fun Now.” Her country tinged soul, punky blues rock, and witty indie songs hit it off with the audience from the get-go, but it was the quieter moment that really blew them away. Closing out her set with “Acid Tongue,” the soulfulness and range of Jenny’s songbird vocals demanded the attention of the audience and left them floored. The emotional power she invested appeared to have rattled her to her core as well, apparent as she was shaking while waving goodbye to a standing ovation. A victory indeed.
The evening’s headliners took to the stage a few minutes before 9:00 p.m. As the band settled in their places, the Buddha of the Appalachians himself, Mr. Levon Helm stepped out front to bow to the audience with open arms and an affectionate grin. The Arkansas native’s southern charm and grace still shines, and his positive energy was felt throughout the audience. A moment later, a N’awlins dance party was launched as the band opened with the rollicking romp of “Ophelia.” Levon’s howling vocals are hoarser these days as a result of his past cancer treatments, but they still have every bit of the roaring passion of his yesterdays. The group continued to dive into the Band’s catalogue, with the barn burning rock of “The Shape I’m In,” and a breathtaking version of “Long Black Veil.” The former featured keyboardist Brian Mitchell ably filling in vocally and musically for the late, great Richard Manuel. The latter featured gorgeous harmonizing by Teresa Williams and Levon’s daughter Amy Helm, as multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell conveyed the murder-and-guilt ballad’s heartbreaking beauty on the mandolin.
The night also found the group covering songs written by their peers and influences. Early on there was the big band bop of Sam Cooke’s “(Ain’t That) Good News” and a re-imagined version of Leadbelly’s “Bourgeois Blues,” which traded the original’s acoustic minimalism for the moaning jazz of the Big Easy. The group’s take on Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell” was thunder, lightning, and doom. Larry Campbell, who played in Dylan’s band from 1997 to 2004, took turns singing the cryptic verses with Levon. The group painted landscapes to match the darkness of the lyrics. You could envision an oncoming storm on the horizon, evil blowing in the wind, and no light at the end of the tunnel. When the song came to an end, Levon picked up the mandolin and made room for top-dog drummer Jim Keltner, whose lengthy list of credentials include work with Bob Dylan, CSNY, Joni Mitchell, the Rolling Stones, Jerry Garcia, Steve Miller, Pink Floyd, and all of the Beatles, minus a McCartney. The group mixed folk and the French Quarter on their swinging rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Deep Elem Blues.” The horn section’s swing took you to a world of minstrel shows and Mardi Gras. “The Mountain” and “This City” featured its author on acoustic guitar and vocals, special guest Steve Earle, who also stuck around for the Rolling Stone’s rambler sing-along, “Sweet Virginia.” Mississippi Fred Mcdowell’s “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” was a heavy dose of gospel blues, with Teresa Williams out front as the fiery preacher. The country funk of Levon’s drumming led the group through the Grateful Dead’s ode to the Volunteer state, “Tennessee Jed,” while the horn section stepped out front for Dr. John’s “All On A Mardi Gras Day,” and for a moment you’d swear you were on Bourbon Street.
Levon and company wrapped up their set the same way they kicked it off: revisiting some of the Band’s greatest masterpieces. “It Makes No Difference” was probably the highlight of the night, with Teresa Williams’ and Amy Helm’s vocals tapping into the fragile beauty of the always-missed Rick Danko. The song served as stirring tribute to the fallen bass player. Garth Hudson was also saluted, as Larry Campbell dropped a searing guitar solo that emulated the organ wiz’s winding intro to “Chest Fever.” The song was a blast of epic grit and rock and roll fireworks, with Campbell and fellow guitarist Jim Weider (who actually played in the ‘80s and ‘90s reincarnation of the Band) playing off each other the same way Robbie Robertson and Eric Clapton do in the Band’s concert film, “The Last Waltz.” Actor Harry Dean Stanton showed up and Steve Earle returned to join the onstage jamboree for “The Weight,” capping off another amazing set that captured the essence of what “The Rambles” are all about.
The group and guests returned for an encore, playing a rousing rendition of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” a song Levon recorded in a tiny mountain home called “Big Pink” with the author decades earlier. A long time has passed since those days, but while he may be old enough to be the retiring ship captain from the Band’s “Rockin’ Chair,” if this fantastic night of music proved anything, Levon Helm still has a lot to give.
Setlist: The Levon Helm Band
Main set: Ophelia (The Band) / The Shape I’m In (The Band) / Long Black Veil (traditional, Band version) / (Ain’t That) Good News (Sam Cooke) / Bourgeois Blues (Leadbelly) / Blind Willie McTell (Bob Dylan) / Midnight Highway / Deep Elem Blues (Grateful Dead, with Jim Keltner on drums) / The Mountain (with author Steve Earle) / This City (Treme song, with Steve Earle) / Sweet Virginia (Rolling Stones, with Steve Earle) / Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning (Mississippi Fred McDowell) / Tennessee Jed (Grateful Dead) / All on a Mardi Gras Day (Dr. John) / It Makes No Difference (The Band) / Larry Campbell guitar solo > Chest Fever (The Band) / The Weight (The Band, with Steve Earle and Harry Dean Stanton)
Encore: I Shall Be Released (Dylan/The Band)
See Fernando / Rise Up With Fists!! / You Are What You Love / Just One of the Guys / Jack Killed Mom / Carpetbaggers / ???? / The Next Messiah / Acid Tongue