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The Levon Helm Band + Jason Isbell

(8 May 2010: Charlottesville Pavilion — Charlottesville, VA)

Filing in just before opener Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit took the stage, I realized the average age of the crowd was probably older than any show I’d attended before. It didn’t take long to realize that these people were Levon Helm’s peers. Sure, there were some teens here—it’s not like The Band disappeared after all—but by and large the audience were people who were there for Music From Big Pink and had spent over 40 years with this music. It was something to think about, and it would be more of a revelation later.


Isbell (formerly of Drive-By Truckers) played well, and intensely, making both “Decoration Day” and the fitting homage “Danko/Manuel” strong moments. The crowd, of course, was still collecting their drinks and finding their seats and doing all the things that crowds do during opening acts. The band pounded away, playing as if it mattered, which is an attitude that must have only been enhanced by spending time with the Levon Helm Band.


Helm—throat cancer survivor, Woodstock survivor, and friend out-liver—came out as if it were the best party imaginable, thrown for him. I’ve rarely, if ever, seen an artist having such a good time just playing a gig. Of course, at age 70 and with that sort of history, there’s reason to appreciate one more chance to go on stage, but the show wasn’t that sort of grateful, old-hero tour. Instead, it was just a party where everyone has fun.


To get a sense of the sound, imagine you threw together whoever was around for a quick jam session. Some horn players, assorted guitarists, and instrument swappers come by, and you figure out what songs you know, and then you play them. But then make the band as tight as any you’ve ever heard, and as flexible. The show kicked off appropriately enough with “The Shape I’m In”, an old Band classic that turn into a massive stomp and immediately got the crowd up. It was clear that far from a pleasant hoedown, we were going to get a rock show. Throughout the night, the group kept it loud and raucous, with organist/accordionist/pianist Brian Mitchell frequently leading the charge, and Larry Campbell (perhaps best known from his role in Dylan‘s recent music) consistently amazing.


Vocalist Teresa Williams provided an odd presence. For much of the night, she seemed shy and retiring. Her voice was fine, but she stood as if she was the nervous friend who’d been talked into going on stage. When the band came to Reverend Gary Davis’ “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”, Williams absolutely let loose, singing the song with an unexpected furor, and providing one of the highlights of the concert. The band responded as well, enjoying the performance as well as becoming invigorated by it. Even so, the group knew how to pace the concert, and to keep things off-balance. The group did some slower numbers (including one during which Helm briefly left the stage, prompting most of the audience to replace their drinks). For a while Helm came to the center of the stage to play mandolin, but even this transition led to a ruckus, as Helm left his stool to do his own bizarre splay-legged dance.


Shortly after his break about 45 minutes into the show, Helm took his first lead vocal for “Tennessee Jed”, a Grateful Dead cover from last year’s Grammy-winning Electric Dirt. Up to this point, the crowd had seen a few dancers in front of the seats, but when Helm sang, the riot got going. The front of the venue was packed from then on, with dancers of all varieties, ages, and, of course, skill levels. Shortly after that, a baby made its appearance by being lifted up. The baby and Helm made eye contact, and I can tell you who was more pleased about the connection.


What could have been a staid tribute sort of show contained constant surprises. The Band and Helm songs were infrequent, with covers and standards dominating (some far less well-known than others, but that didn’t matter). Even the familiar got turned upside-down. “The Weight” got a tuba solo and, more interesting, “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” into a zydeco jam (followed by some true New Orleans stuff). Campbell, though, may have done the most unlikely feat of all. After three notes on his electric guitar, I caught the nod to “The Genetic Method”, Garth Hudson’s strange, comical, and stunning organ solo from Rock of Ages. But Campbell wasn’t tipping his hat—he was covering it. Turning a prog, holiday organ solo into a screaming guitar epic is no easy feat, and it’s no wonder the rest of the band was off to the side of the stage grinning.


Helm overcame vocal problems to duet with his daughter Amy, but there was nothing of “a moment” about it. It was a natural and, as was key to the evening, fun turn. It was the sort of sequence that the night was full of, wonderfully performed music short on making anything bigger explicit. And yet there was the crowd, having been around from the beginning, and there was Helm, smiling all night long, and there was the band, playing every note as if it mattered, but holding forth as if it was nothing special.


You ever get that feeling that mostly you’re just killing time? Me neither.

Justin Cober-Lake lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife, kids, and dog. His writing has appeared in a number of places, including Stylus, Paste, Chord, and Trouser Press. His work made its first appearance on CD with the release of Todd Goodman's first symphony, Fields of Crimson. He's recently co-founded the literary fly-fishing journal Rise Forms.


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