Review by Janet Kwiatkowski
Pre-performance backstage photographs by Jennifer Starr
An all-star line-up of artists and friends gathered to celebrate the life and music of Levon Helm at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The flow of talent was staggering and ranged from Helm’s contemporaries – Roger Waters, Jorma Kaukonen, John Prine, Allen Toussaint, Mavis Staples, Joe Walsh and Gregg Allman – to younger musicians, including My Morning Jacket, Ray LaMontagne, Eric Church, John Mayer, Deirks Bentley, Jakob Dylan, Robert Randolph and Grace Potter.
The concert was a benefit to support the lasting legacy of Helm by helping his estate keep ownership of his Woodstock home, barn and studio, and to keep the music flowing at the famous Midnight Ramble sessions.
With a career spanning over 50 years, Levon Helm has left behind a rich musical heritage. From his earlier years with Ronnie Hawkins, Bob Dylan and the Band, to his recent Grammy Award wins for “Dirt Farmer,” “Electric Dirt,” and “Ramble at the Ryman,” to his legendary Midnight Rambles, Helm’s influence was far reaching. His spirit and sound had a universal draw and touched the lives of countless musicians and fans.
Despite the size of the packed venue, it was a deeply moving event that held a warm, homey feel coupled with the anticipation a good time. The energy and vibe was one of spiritual connection. “I just HAD to be here” was the general consensus, both on stage and in the audience, also inspiring several busloads of folks from Woodstock to make the trip down to show their love and support.
Bass player and producer Don Was and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell served as musical co-directors. Campbell was on fire, shining through on vocals, fiddle and guitar along with vocalists Amy Helm and Teresa Williams, with the Levon Helm Band and horns providing back-up for most of the evening’s performances. Campbell announced that the Levon Helm Band has been re-named the Midnight Ramble Band. Garth Hudson, of the Band, was also on hand to add his superlative talents.
Without any delay between performances, each artist came out, one by one, and gave equally euphoric and touching renditions of classic songs mainly from the Band’s vast catalog. Just hearing Warren Haynes and Gregg Allman sing together on “Long Black Veil,” Ray LaMontagne’s raspy and powerful “Tears of Rage” and Lucinda Williams’ forlorn version of “Whispering Pines,” you knew these songs would live on as a living, breathing thing. Past collaborators Mavis Staples and Allen Toussaint brought a joy with Staples’ gospel take on “Move Along Train” and Toussaint’s rousing “Life is a Carnival.”
Jakob Dylan & the Wallflowers, who toured with Levon Helm, inspired dancing in the aisles with their take on the New Orleans classic “Ain’t Got No Home,” as did John Hiatt (on guitar and vocals) along with Phish bassist Mike Gordon on “Rag Mama Rag.”
Grace Potter’s amazing solo on “I Shall Be Released” was a pure and transcendent moment and really sparked the audience to roars of applause. Helm’s Nashville influence was evident with free-wheeling performances by country artists Eric Church and Deirks Bentley. Garth Hudson prevailed on the organ with a hymnal-like intro before hitting those recognizable first notes of “Chest Fever,” along with Bentley on vocals, which brought the house to their feet.
Joe Walsh fired up the crowd with a rocking “Up on Cripple Creek” while fellow New Jersey native Robert Randolph blazed away on the pedal steel guitar. Both took the song in a new direction and to new heights. The Midnight Ramble Band was replaced by My Morning Jacket for an emotional “It Makes No Difference” with Jim James’ plaintive falsetto wringing out each beautiful lyric. Roger Waters walked out and joined MMJ for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and did a dramatic duet with Amy Helm on “Wide River to Cross.” Waters explained his connection to Helm as he brought out a red baseball cap, which was given to him by Helm when they met in Berlin over 20 years ago, and told the crowd, “It’s my fishing hat, and I will cherish it until the day I die.”
The entire line-up was brought onstage for the finale of the often-covered song “The Weight.” Being enveloped in the warmth and grace of such a sight left you with a distinct sense of the stature of Levon Helm as an artist and great friend.
If anyone would like to contribute to the “Save the Barn” effort, they can go to levonhelm.com/keep it goin’.
“LOVE FOR LEVON” SET LIST
The Shape I’m In – Warren Haynes
Long Black Veil – Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes
Trouble in Mind- Jorma Kaukenon and Barry Mitterhoff (mandolin)
This Wheel’s on Fire – Larry Campbell and MRB
Little Birds – Amy Helm and Teresa Williams
Listening to Levon – Marc Cohn
Move Along Train – Mavis Staples with Amy Helm and Teresa Williams
Life is a Carnival – Allen Tousaint and Jaimoe (drums)
When I Paint My Masterpiece – John Prine and Garth Hudson (accordion)
Anna Lee – Bruce Hornsby (dulcimer), Amy Helm, Teresa Williams, and Larry Campbell (fiddle)
Ain’t Got No Home – The Wallflowers
Whispering Pines – Lucinda Williams
Rag Mama Rag – John Hiatt and Mike Gordon (bass)
Baby Don’t You Do It – David Bromberg and Joan Osborne
I Shall Be Released – Grace Potter and Matt Burr (drums)
Tears of Rage – Ray LaMontagne and John Mayer (guitar)
Rockin’ Chair – Deirks Bentley, Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander
Chest Fever – Deirks Bentley and Garth Hudson (organ)
A Train Robbery – Eric Church
Get Up Jake – Eric Church
Tennessee Jed – Larry Campbell and John Mayer (guitar)
Up On Cripple Creek – Joe Walsh and Robert Randolph (pedal steel)
It Makes No Difference – My Morning Jacket
Ophelia – My Morning Jacket
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down -Roger Waters, GE Smith (guitar) and My Morning Jacket
Wide River to Cross – Roger Waters and Amy Helm
The Weight – all