Hitting The Trunk Road: A Little More Love For Levon

After the passing of any musician respected by his peers and/or beloved by a widespread audience, it’s become customary for their friends and family to organize one final concert to serve as a public memorial. Experience Hendrix tours notwithstanding, these commemorative shows are typically charitable affairs and often produce some memorable and genuinely heartfelt moments. At Wembley Stadium, the surviving members of Queen welcomed a slew of singers to honor Freddie Mercury (and raise AIDS awareness), Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr offered moving tributes at the Concert for George held at Royal Albert Hall and the unfortunate passing of Ahmet Ertegun brought the surviving members of Led Zeppelin together for their finest performance since the death of John Bonham. This October, those touched and influenced by Levon Helm gathered together at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey to honor The Band’s lovably cantankerous drummer. As far as concert memorials go, the Love For Levon concert may go down as one of the best.

 

[Photo by Jeremy Gordon]

By now, especially if you’re reading this column on this site, you are intimately familiar with who sang what with whom and that the fantasy booking revolving around Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson never gained hold outside of the active imaginations of those that likely still believe they can clap Tinkerbell back to health. Larry Campbell, Levon’s long time bandleader, anchored the house band which featured those integral to the warmth and success of the Midnight Rambles, namely Teresa Williams, Levon’s daughter Amy, guitarist Jim Weider, bassist Byron Isaacs, keyboardist Brian Mitchell and the horn section of Steven Bernstein, Eric Lawrence, Clark Gayton, Jay Collins and Howard Johnson as well as Don Was and Kenny Aronoff.

Unlike other all-star events – save those that include Paul Shaffer, who simply knows every song ever recorded – this band was intimately familiar with the source material, permitting musical directors Campbell and Was to match the perfect singer with each song. The weathered and world-weary vocals of John Prine enriched the wistful optimism of When I Paint My Masterpiece while the inherent playfulness of John Hiatt’s natural delivery enlivened Rag Mama Rag. The unavoidable goofiness that rides hand in hand with anything Joe Walsh sings paired well with the earthy bonhomie of Up On Cripple Creek and Allen Toussaint may very well have born to sing Life Is A Carnival. Ray Lamontagne’s mournful plaintive wail struck a stunningly perfect balance with the quiet simmering indignation of Tears Of Rage making it sound as if the song couldn’t have been written with anyone else’s voice in mind. For as much as Campbell and friends knew what to do on stage, they also knew when to step away, letting My Morning Jacket do what they do best: be My Morning Jacket.

For a show honoring a rock and roll legend, it would have been easy to emulate the philosophy of The Last Waltz and fill the stage with well-pedigreed stars to commemorate Helm’s strong body of work. Taking that approach would have served to memorialize Levon but the night was meant to celebrate Levon. With Grace Potter offering a transcendent version of I Shall Be Released, country rockers Dierks Bentley and Eric Church taking charge of songs like Chest Fever and A Train Robbery, John Mayer (yes, that John Mayer) and Robert Randolph taking extended solos and the slotting of My Morning Jacket as the anchor act, the proverbial torch was passed from those who knew Helm in his prime to those that will carry his legacy into the future. The Love For Levon show demonstrated that his music, The Band’s music and let’s face it, all Americana and folk music transcends the generations and will remain as universal, influential and timeless as Levon himself.

OFF RAMPS AND REST STOPS

When Billy Joel sang Miami 2017 (Seen The Lights Go Out On Broadway) at the Paul McCartney curated Concert for New York, it seemed like an appropriate song that characterized the mood and tenor of the post 9/11 city. When he reprised the song for NBC’s Coming Together mini-telethon to raise money for the Red Cross and those affected by Hurricane Sandy, the Long Island native sounded as prophetic as Nostradamus. Hardhearted is the New Yorker that could listen to him sing about Manhattan sinking into the sea and not get a shiver through their spine.

Tame Impala may rightfully be the present poster children for the resurgence in Sixties-inflected psychedelic rock’s popularity but they aren’t the only band to be drawing edifying inspiration from that era. When not pairing up with Ty Segall for back-to-basics guitar-based punk rock or blending in with The Strange Boys, California-based guitarist Tim Presley records a prolific amount of garage-quality psychedelic hard rock as White Fence. Although not as Beatles-inflected as Lonerism, Tame Impala’s marvelous follow up to Innerspeaker, White Fence’s 2012 double volume Family Perfume is replete with enough reverb-laden nuggets to satisfy anyone’s appetite for barebones psych-rock. Startlingly, the massive quantity of music on Family Perfume is pared down from an even greater number of songs reportedly in Presley’s stash. While further parsing would make for a more satisfying listen, there’s very little chaff to separate from the wheat.

With the release of Black And Blu, his first full-length album, the growing legend of Austin, Texas guitar wizard Gary Clark Jr. can only become more epic in scope. No matter that a third of the album has been available in some form or fashion for quite some time or that the album seems to meander in an effort to find a level water mark. Black And Blu does an admirable job of capturing Clark’s live show within the confines of the studio, especially his incendiary (yep, Almost Famous is all over cable this month and I’m using that word) adaptation of Hendrix’ Third Stone From The Sun. and easily contains some of the best guitar laid down in a studio in years. At 28, Clark no longer qualifies as the precocious prodigy upon which he built his reputation. Instead, he’s now one of the finest young rock guitarists in America.

Justin Harris and Danny Seim, the remaining members of Menomena, seem none the worse for wear on Moms, their latest album in which they contemplate the fact that they’ve lived as much of their lives without their mothers as with them. The departure of Brent Knopf for his own Ramona Falls project may not have had a dramatic effect on Menomena’s studio work, however, on stage, his absence is more pronounced. Even with a fuller complement of musicians to round out the sound, the spark of genius that existed when Knopf paired on stage with Harris and Seim seems now to not shine as bright.

While the Disney-style aura of many of her songs is distinctly her own, Annie Clark’s penchant for new wave inflected pop underscored with an energetic pulsing beat has never been far removed from the Talking Heads, making the recent St. Vincent/David Byrne pairing more inevitable than randomly generated. At the Beacon Theater, the two collaborated on a cleverly presented show that relied heavily on a peripatetic horn section and touched on their separate efforts as much as it did Love This Giant, their recently released joint effort. During the Byrne-led portions of the show, which included an artfully rendered version of Naïve Melody and a surprisingly robust take on Burning Down The House, Clark found subtle ways of making her presence felt without taking the spotlight away from her predecessor in the world of New York hipdom. It would have been nice to see Byrne return the favor. Instead, when St. Vincent would shuffle and charm her way through songs like Cheerleader and Northern Lights, Byrne simply melded into the Greek chorus of horns. For two similarly minded musicians, their album and performance felt more like they worked respectfully at arm’s length as opposed to spending time crawling around in each other’s headspace.

Just a few months ago, London Souls guitarist Tash Neal suffered serious injuries in an automobile accident. From the dearth of news concerning his condition, it might not have been rash to wonder if his recovery would ever include a return to the stage. Over the last couple weeks, London Souls sightings have been plentiful and, Here Comes The Girls, their second studio album, will be released shortly after the new year. Amongst the many things to be thankful for this holiday season, there’s surely room for this on your list.

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One thought on “Hitting The Trunk Road: A Little More Love For Levon

  1. Chad B. Reply

    Good stuff David, always appreciate this column. Agreed with you: so good to have the London Souls back in action, and I’m psyched to see them back at Cameo on Wednesday. Going to have to respectfully disagree about Gary Clark Jr.’s album, though. Doesn’t nearly do him justice and is sort of haphazard and uneven. I hope he finds a producer who can bring out his best.

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