NEW YORK, NY—Levon Helm and friends took on the Beacon Theatre and turned it into a revivalist meeting of roots rock, Appalachian style, adding doses of hippie soul, bluegrass and country and making a hybrid stew that churned into an organic mash up of Americana. Along with multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, known for his work with Bob “stone-faced” Dylan and Phil Lesh, and Jimmy Vivino, Fab Feux/Conan O’Brian guitarist at the helm, Levon was free to take on the drums and sing in a celebration to a life on the road and some of the greatest American music ever made.
A five-piece horn section including the city’s creme-de- creme added brassy depth to the arrangements, giving them a bouncy dose of Dixie that turned the night into a spectacular showdown of musical mastery. Guests included folkie Phoebe Snow and the big man, Clarence Clemons from the E-Street Band, rounded out the night, turning the event into party central as the part-time actor and full-time musician from Marvel, Arkansas, pounded out the beats with the enthusiasm and wide eyed grin of a 16-year-old.
The ex-Band drummer was a dynamic presence onstage as he paradiddled and shuffled throughout the evening, making the drums sing in a delicate style that was tasty and delicate one second, punchy and earnest the next. Helm’s style of riding the cymbals and taking on the vocals in unison is unique in a medium where bombastic loud beats often rule. His voice was a finely aged instrument, weathered by a recent bout with throat cancer that reeked of aged whiskey and a lifetime’s worth of spinning yarns around the campfire.
Hot off winning a Grammy for best traditional folk album with Dirt Farmer and becoming a granddad from Ollabelle member and daughter Amy, Helm played it like the king at a homecoming hootenanny; honky-tonk style. Ollabelle laid down the night’s foundation of roots rock with a solid set that included “John The Revelator” from their 2004 debut and closed with the Grateful Dead’s “Ripple.” Ollabelle’s Tony Leone took over the drum throne from Helm when he played the mandolin, adding an earthy bottom end to the band’s blasting horns, guitars and ragtime piano that congealed into a full throttled wall of sound reminiscent of The Band’s performance in the film The Last Waltz.
Opening with “Ophelia,” the band flexed its brass muscles at the crowd as Helm laid down the solid beats stage left facing the crowd on profile so you could see every bass drum thump, cymbal crash and snare snap, up close and personal. Little Sammy Davis added some blues harp on a few numbers as did soul songstress Catherine Russell. Teresa Williams played a countrified version of “Long Black Veil” that appeared on Music From Big Pink.
On “Anna Lee” from his latest, Helm played mandolin as the rest of the band countered acoustically in three part harmonies. “Rag Mama Rag” jump started the grand finale of the second part of the two hour performance that reeled and rocked the crowd into a barnyard dance-athon. Phoebe Snow sang “Into The Mystic,” adding a torch-like soulful vibrato to the Van Morrison classic. Jimmy Vivino paid homage to ex-band member Richard Manuel with a tender “Tears Of Rage.”
Larry Campbell jump stared “Chest Fever” with a psychedelic barrage of notes that molted into the moody strains of the song’s signature beginning. For the closer, “I Shall Be Released,” everyone in the crowd sang along on the chorus, ending a glorious night of song.