On an unseasonably cool evening in the hills of Los Angeles, Levon Helm and company settled in for a night soaked in the sounds of music. A mix of music from the dirt, from the barn, from the bayou, and from Elaine, Arkansas — where, as a child, Helm first witnessed the minstrel shows that had such an impact on his music.
Especially the after-hours "midnight rambles" where, as he related to Martin Scorsese in the landmark rockumentary The Last Waltz, the songs would get a little bit juicier, the jokes would get a little funnier and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times.
Such was the inspiration for the shows at his home studio (affectionately referred to as The Barn) in Woodstock, NY, and — as with the minstrel shows of his youth — he demonstrated that such entertainment took exceptionally well to the road. Helm doesn't get out to the West Coast very often — this was his first show in California with his current lineup -- and his presence was long overdue and richly enjoyed by the robust crowd at the Greek Theatre.
The evening's songs represented a selection from his historic years with The Band, material from his two recent Grammy Award-winning albums, and a selection of old favorites, given a characteristic down-home folksiness that Levon Helm seemed to exude from the stage, as though the musicians were playing back in the Barn in Woodstock.
Highlights were many — from the raucous opener "Ophelia" to keyboardist Brian Mitchell's Dr. Johnesque rendition of the Leadbelly tune, "Bourgeois Blues," to Larry Campbell's impressive reworking of Garth Hudson's juggernaut "Chest Fever." Helm's daughter Amy provided a revival-style rendition of the Sam Cooke tune "Ain't that Good News" and vocalist Teresa Williams' impassioned "It Makes No Difference" served the memory of departed Band member Rick Danko well.
Halfway through the evening, troubadour Steve Earle joined the ensemble and performed his East Kentucky waltz, "The Mountain" (which Helm covered on his 2007 album Dirt Farmer). He followed it up with a rollicking, sing-along version of the 1972 Rolling Stones classic, "Sweet Virginia."
Also sitting in for a few tunes was session legend Jim Keltner, who spelled Levon on the drums and allowed him to go front and center with his mandolin for a few numbers.
Perhaps the most bizarre event of the evening occurred when Harry Dean Stanton (yes, THAT Harry Dean Stanton of "Cool Hand Luke" and "Repo Man" fame) took the stage and, after searching in vain for a lyric sheet that was nowhere on his person, joined the cast in singing "The Weight." After which, the entire group briefly dispersed, before taking the stage for an encore of the Bob Dylan-penned classic, "I Shall Be Released."
Helm, who is recovering from throat cancer, was limited to only occasional singing; his voice not yet back to its former mollasses-tinged tenor. His prowess as a drummer, however, has suffered no ill effects as his years have advanced. His playing was economical, tasteful and right on the money.
The quality of musicianship all around was top notch. Guitarist Jim Weider lent some tasty solos along with Campbell, and the brass section — featuring legendary tuba player Howard Johnson — lent some inspired New Orleans flavor to an eclectic mix that dipped its ladle into the varied waters of blues, country, rock, and jazz.
Local strummer Jim Bianco warmed the crowd up with his quirky, catchy songs, before handing things over to Jenny Lewis, who set the pace for the evening with a focused set featuring material from her 2008 debut Acid Tongue. She played the radio-friendly "See Fernando" and the frankly, creepy "Jack Killed Mom." The entire band backed her and her guitar a capella for the final song of her set, a highlight and a fittingly down-home setup for Helm and his band.
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