Concert Wrap — Levon Helm, June 18 @ WAC

June 19th, 2009 at 1:56 pm

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The Band sings “It Makes No Difference” during the concert film “The Last Waltz.” Does it make a difference to fans that one of its members, Arkansas native Levon Helm, didn’t sing at a local concert?

Perhaps a text message I got in the moments following Levon Helm’s concert on June 18 at the Walton Arts Center said it best.

It was a friend and fellow Helm fan who was also at the show who sent it:

“[My] heart is crushed that he didn’t sing. [My] heart is ridiculously happy otherwise.”

That pretty much summed it up.

It was hard not to be dazzled by the Levon Helm Band, a 12-piece collection of musicians that thundered through cuts by The Band, the group that made Helm famous, and other tracks that spanned the blues, zydeco and many more.

It was hard not to be wowed by the local talent that joined him onstage, as cameos by longtime friends The Cate Brothers and Helm’s nephew, Terry Cagle, must certainly be included in the highlights of the evening.

It was also hard not sit wishing, waiting, praying even, that Helm would offer his butter-on-gravel Southern drawl on at least one song, or offer at least one hello to the sold-out venue in his native state.

There would be nothing of the sort. Helm, though active on his kit the entire night and in his mannerisms following each song, remained silent for the entire concert.

Still today, I write and wonder: Was the concert what I expected? Did the fans get wait they paid for? I’m not sure those questions are easily answered.

Click the ‘more‘ link below to continue reading about Levon Helm’s concert at the Walton Arts Center in Fayetteville on June 18.

No one should have expected Helm, a throat cancer survivor, to sing 25 songs. He didn’t even do that in his prime, back when he performed with The Band, a group that always traded vocals between songs.

If you follow Helm at all, you would know that he’s had to work hard to overcome the vocal problems that were a result of the cancer. You’d know that his daughter, Amy Helm, and other musicians in his band, handle much of the vocal duties during Levon Helm Band concerts.
In between concerts, Helm and his team do all they can to protect his voice. They denied an interview request from the Northwest Arkansas Times prior to his performance because he needed to rest his voice.

So, reviews from news publications where Helm performed a week or so prior to his Arkansas appearance indicated just that: He got lots of vocal help but took the microphone for several tracks.

I couldn’t find a review of his Tulsa performance, which took place just two days before his Fayetteville appearance and might have served as a more accurate indicator of what to expect.

We had heard rumors that the Tulsa show wasn’t easy on his voice. What no one knew is that he wouldn’t sing or speak for the entire duration of the Fayetteville performance. From my vantage point, I could see Helm constantly sipping from a red plastic cup and often blowing his nose, clearly in an effort to overcome what ailed him.

It never happened, but one can’t say he didn’t put forth an effort. Watching him drum is something of an exercise in itself, and he proved over an over again why he’s held in high regards for his instrumental abilities. The length of the performance, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 1/2 hours, demanded much physicality of all the musicians, Helm included.

As a compliment to his drumming and singing — when he does it — Helm has assembled a team of aces that include vocalists, a four-piece horn section, keyboards and, at various times during the evening, fiddle, mandolin and other sounds.

Chief among those players are guitarist (and de facto bandleader) Larry Campbell, who spent years in Bob Dylan’s touring band, and Howard Johnson, who played with The Band on the seminal concert film “The Last Waltz” and had a mean saxophone solo in the middle of the evening. That’s not to forget the contributions of the other players, with some fantastic vocals, gumbo-flavored horn work and keyboard wizardry.

Perhaps my favorite part of the evening was when Helm invited The Cate Brothers and his nephew, Terry Cagle, onto the stage. Cagle, who carried lead vocal duties on several songs and drummed on a kit directly behind his uncle’s, bears a striking resemblance in style to Helm. The Cates also owe much to the drummer, as it was Helm who helped them get a major record deal in the mid-70s. After original guitarist Robbie Robertson left The Band in the early 1980s, it was The Cates who joined the remaining members for a tour that included stops in Japan.
The brothers, who call Springdale home, invigorated some of those Band songs late in the set, including versions of classics such as the tragic “It Makes No Difference,” the storming “Chest Fever” and iconic “The Weight,” and the evening’s closing track, the Dylan-penned “I Shall Be Released.”

It was a climax to a night that had already seen many peaks, from sparse acoustic harmonies to Cajun horn meltdowns to guitar wizardry (particularly Campbell’s opening solo on “Chest Fever,” a fugue originally recorded and played on piano).

There was just one thing missing: Helm’s voice.

His silence loomed over the night, prompting one patron to scream out “Sing something for us, Levon” late in the set.

It was only then — 23 songs and more than two hours into the set — that the crowd got any acknowledgement about Helm’s condition.

“He’s a little under the weather,” Campbell told the crowd before the band launched into “The Weight,” that last song before the encore.

It was something akin to opening a present on Christmas morning only to find out it wasn’t what you asked for: It was easy to get caught up in the excitement and the magic, but at the end, you still didn’t get what you wanted.

Set list, as pulled from the stage and reported on Helm’s Web site: 1) The Shape I’m In; 2) Love Played A Game; 3) Jealous Man; 4) Simple Twist of Fate [Bob Dylan cover]; 5) Bye Bye My Love; 6) Long Black Veil; 7) Gotta Get My Baby Outta Jail; 8) Before I Get Too Old; 9) Did You Love Me; 10) Deep Ellum Blues [Grateful Dead cover]; 11) Attics of My Life; 12) Ophelia; 13) Natural Anthem; 14) Mardi Gras Day; 15) Everybody Loves A Winner; 16) Going Back to Memphis; 17) Ain’t Go No Home; 18) Remedy; 19) Al La Glory; 20) Time Out For The Blues; 21) Great Divide; 22) It Makes No Difference; 23) Chest Fever; 24) The Weight

Encore: 25) Saved; 26) I Shall Be Released