April 23rd, 2010 at 2:51 pm
Levon Helm’s message came early in the night, and the message was clear.
“What do you say, what do you say?” he called out to the crowd as he took his seat behind a shiny red drumkit.
Helm waited seven songs until he sang, and after that song reached its conclusion, the crowd on Thursday (April 22) at the Arkansas Music Pavilion, perhaps 1,500 strong, rose to their feet for an ovation.
Most singers who wait nearly an hour before singing would be greeted with boos. But most singers haven’t beat throat cancer. Most singers don’t attract random, semi-famous musician guests, such as Billy Joe Shaver, who spent the beginning of the evening hanging out in the AMP’s VIP area. Most singers don’t have the hometown love that Helm does here in his native state. And most simply aren’t Levon Helm, a diminuitive man who remains an influential drummer and songwriter today, 50 years after he started performing.
Here is what Helm has to say: I’m back, and I’ve still got music to share.
Click the ‘more’ link to continue reading about Helm’s concert at the AMP.
Last June, Helm played at the Walton Arts Center to a capacity crowd. It was a few concerts into his tour, and his voice had weakened to the point where he could no longer sing. He drummed the night away, animated but completely silent.
Helm didn’t sing much Thursday night, but in truth, he never did. Even when he was with The Band, the group that made him famous, he split vocal duties with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko.
On Thursday, he sang all or part of four or five of the 12-piece Levon Helm Band’s 21 tracks of the evening, using people like his daughter, Amy Helm, or one of his friends, Ernie Cate of Springdale, to take the lead.
The group kicked the evening off with a song by The Band, “The Shape I’m In” and closed it with another, “I Shall Be Released,” which was originally written by Bob Dylan.
In between those two Band classics, Helm and his group tackled another Dylan song (“Simple Twist of Fate”), one by Jerry Garcia (“Tennessee Jed”), a cut from his 2007 album “Dirt Farmer” (“Calvary”) and several others.
In the process, Helm’s band jumped between genres, too, with slow ballads (“Long Black Veil”), bluegrass, a New Orleans-style boogie, led by the horn section, and several others.
Highlights included a take on “Deep Ellum Blues,” “Chest Fever,” with a mighty guitar intro from Larry Campbell, and “Makes No Difference,” despite the fact it may be one of the saddest songs ever written.
It was a mellow night, perhaps so because of the absolutely perfect weather, and Helm and company were in danger of losing the crowd during the middle section of the evening until wisely picking up the pace by closing things out with a barrage that included “Rag Mamma Rag,” “It Makes No Difference,” “Chest Fever” and “The Weight,” which got a wild singalong.
The crowd’s enthusiasm picked up with those tunes, but it a never reached a boiling point, save for the choruses of “The Weight” and a brief moment during the middle of the set where Helm danced awkwardly at centerstage for a moment or two, much to the delight of everyone.
It was in many ways the same set we saw in June. Except for that voice, limited as it may still be. Judging by the way the crowd responded, all he need to do was say hello.
Everything else was just a gravel-voiced bonus.
A note about the opener:
The Cate Brothers Band is a familiar entity for fans of The Band and Helm, as the Cates have played with the drummer for years. They warmed up the crowd with an-hour long set prominently featuring the very good guitar work of Earl Cate.
Partial setlist for the Levon Helm Band: 1) The Shape I’m In; 2) Not sure of the title of this one; 3) Not sure of the title of this one; 4) Simple Twist of Fate [Bob Dylan cover]; 5) Not sure of the title of this one; 6) Long Black Veil; 7) Not sure of the title of this one; 8) Not sure of the title of this one; 9) Deep Ellum Blues; 10) Not sure of the title of this one; 11) Tennessee Jed [Grateful Dead cover]; 12) Not sure of the title of this one; 13) Not sure of the title of this one; 14) Not sure of the title of this one; 15) Rag Mamma Rag; 16) Calvary; 17) Not sure of the title of this one; 18) It Makes No Difference; 19) Chest Fever; 20) The Weight
Encore: 21) I Shall Be Released