Concert: Levon Helm with Steve Earle, Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice in Los Angeles
The gradual return of Levon Helm to singing and performing since undergoing throat cancer surgery in 1998 had a tremendous payoff Sunday night (8/15) at the Greek Theater, where the Band's drummer and Southern spirit responded to an admiring crowd with a dazzling two-hour concert.
Helm's presence -- at 70, he's still a ferocious drummer -- was cheered as much as the top-notch music-making; this show was a celebration of a creative life, of multiple strains of American music and of one man's determined will to soldier through adversity.
Sunday's show at the Greek is the farthest west Helm and his 10-piece band band, led by guitarist Larry Campbell, have traveled since Helm returned to performing a little more than six years ago. In early 2004, he converted his Woodstock, NY, barn into a concert venue for the so-called "Midnight Ramble," asking, essentially, for fans to come to him, where they would be treated to an informal musical gathering with his band and esteemed guests. On the recording side, Helm dove into his acoustic-country and blues roots for for "Dirt Farmer" and plugged in for "Electric Dirt"; the albums won Grammys in 2008 and '09. The Greek show captured the essence of those barn sessions and the two albums.
Of course, there were plenty of songs from his days with the Band, starting with the Robbie Roberston-penned "Ophelia" and closing with Bob Dylan's "I Shall Released." Interspersed among tunes from the two recent albums were "The Shape I'm In," "Long Black Veil," "Chest Fever" (with a lengthy solo guitar intro from Campbell), "It Makes No Difference" and "The Weight" (with guests Steve Earle and Harry Dean Stanton), and a few blues classics -- among them Leadbelly's anti-D.C. diatribe "Bourgeois Blues" and "Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning," a Delta blues associated with Rev. Gary Davis and Blind Willie Johnson that Hot Tuna has long used as a concert staple.
The Helm band's take on all this music is a tribute to integration. Only in the quiet country moments is a song rendered as genre specific; Sam Cooke's "(Ain't That) Good News" was about as perfect a song as they could find to cover, its marriage of rockabilly and gospel cementing a point Helm has made throughout his career: American music has no boundaries. A four-piece horn section, which included Band veteran Howard Johnson on tuba, came and went throughout the night, rooting songs in festive New Orleans styles ranging from second lines to traditional jazz to the big beat R&B of the 1950s. Pianist Brian Mitchell is a makeshift Dr. John, rolling countless New Orleans stylists (Tuts Washington, Professor Longhair, Eddie Bo) into a single rock 'n' roll boogie, his gravelly voice filling in for Helm on several verses alongside Campbell, country bluebird Teresa Williams and Helms' daughter Amy.
Helm's voice is still on the mend, reducing the number of verses and choruses he sang solo. Nothing, though, has impaired his drumming, a polyrhythmic distillation of R&B, jazz and the fusion of styles that defined the South in the 1940s and '50s. Helm continues a tradition he started when the Band reunited without Robertson in the 1980s, positioning his drums downstage so he looks straight at the rest of the band and the audience can see the splayed nature of his drumming style.
Earle came out nine songs into the set -- Jim Keltner was a guest drummer while Helm played mandolin on "Deep Ellum Blues" -- and joined for a three songs that encapsulated the heart of Helm's vision. They covered a rural theme with Earle's "The Mountain"; mined New Orleans horn charts on "This City," the Emmy-nominated song Earle wrote for HBO's "Treme"; and connected with the great, rootsy rock 'n' roll of the Band by covering the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Virginia."
The aspirations of opener Jenny Lewis are not that different than those of Helm. The former Rilo Kiley singer is balancing a showcase that alternates between her 2008 debut "Acid Tongue" and her upcoming project with Johnathan Rice called "Jenny & Johnny. "(Their album will be released Aug. 31).
Lewis's music is consistently delivered in a country cadence -- regardless of which direction she is pushing a melody -- giving her originals a comfortable, lived-in feeling. One of her new numbers with Rice, who was part of her six-piece band, was an engaging distillation of familiar musicians playing an old hit song. In that case they sounded like Dolly Parton and Porter Waggoner fronting Rockpile and performing a slowed version of Bobby Fuller's "I Fought the Law."
21, 28 - Woodstock, NY - Midnight Ramble
4, 11, 18, 25 - Woodstock, NY - Midnight Ramble
22 - Boiceville, NY - Harry Simon Auditorium.
12 - Austin, TX - Bass Concert Hall
26, 27 - New York, NY - Beacon Theatre
Jenny Lewis & Johnathan Rice (a.k.a. Jenny & Johnny)
1 - Santa Cruz, CA - Rio Theater
2-3 - San Francisco, CA - Great American Music Hall
5 - Portland, OR - Doug Fir Lounge
6 - Seattle, WA - Bumbershoot Festival
8 - Salt Lake City, UT - The State Room
9 - Broomfield, CO - 1st Bank Center
11 - Omaha, NE - The Waiting Room
12 - Minneapolis, MN - Cedar Cultural Center
13 - Chicago, IL - Lincoln Hall
14 - Cleveland, OH - Beachland Ballroom
16 - Washington, DC - Black Cat
17 - Pawtucket, RI - The Met Cafe
18 - Boston, MA - Agganis Arena
19 - Brooklyn, NY - The Williamsburg Waterfront
21 - Hoboken, NJ - Maxwell's
22 - Philadelphia, PA - Trocadero Theater
23 - Chapel Hill, NC - Cat's Cradle
24 - Athens, GA -40 Watt Club
25 - Nashville, TN - Mercy Lounge
28 - Dallas, TX - Granada Theater
29 - Austin, TX - Emo's Outside
3 - Hollywood, CA - Hollywood Palladium
21 - Toronto, Ontario - Kool Haus
22 - Detroit - The Fillmore
28 - Asheville, NC - Thomas Wolfe Auditorium
29 - North Charleston, SC - North Charleston Performing Arts Center
30 - Atlanta, GA - Fox Theater
12 - Minehead, United Kingdom - Butlins Holiday Resort