Levon Helm Band at the Variety Playhouse 4/9/08

Here’s one picture I borrowed from the AJC – click here to check out the full gallery:

This show was a last minute decision for me and a bit of a gamble, but it had a great payoff.

The last minute part is pretty self-explanatory. The gamble is because I wasn’t really all that familiar with Levon’s music or his prestigious place in music history. All I knew was two songs off his latest album “Dirt Farmer,” and that he was OLD. But I liked those two songs. Categorically they weren’t my favorite kind of music, but they had a lot of personality and they didn’t really sound like anything else I had heard. I got a Cliff’s Notes briefing on Levon from my friend John before I went to the show – the extremely short version is that he’s 68 years old, he was in The Band, and he had a battle with throat cancer that prevented him from singing for over 5 years.

I agreed to meet some folks for dinner before the show and really just had my fingers crossed that the show wouldn’t be sold out. When I got to the venue, the good news is that the show wasn’t sold out. The shocking news is that tickets were $45!! But I guess this guy is kind of a legend, and the VP is a smallish venue so it seemed silly to bail out at this point. I bought a ticket, enjoyed some drinks and pre-show banter and then headed back to the venue.

The show started at 8PM and there was no opener. There was a big showing of older folks in the audience who had waited in line to get the seats, but the GA area is in front of the seats and us younger folks were up there. The stage setup looked impressive – lots of stuff up there. And the drum kit was positioned sideways at the front right of the stage. Hmmm. Oh yeah – Levon’s a drummer.

At around 8:20, out comes the band and it’s big! Four horns, a stand up bass, a piano/keyboard guy (who looked a lot like Ron Jeremy), a mandolin, two guitars – played by Amy Helm (Levon’s daughter)* and Larry Campbell (the man), and of course Levon on Drums. At first impression Levon looks his age, if not older. He looks like he probably weighs about 80 lbs and therefore seems very frail. He did not act frail though…

They open with Ophelia and immediately it was obvious that this was going to be a special show. A rare collection of consummate professional musicians who were all really happy to be playing with each other. And of the whole crew, Levon did the least to hide his enjoyment – he had a HUGE grin for the vast majority of the show. Just looking at him forced you to smile in kind. Here was this waifish looking old man absolutely rocking out on the drums and making it look effortless, smiling ear to ear and beaming his enjoyment about playing with a fantastic band for a just-right sized crowd that was really excited about being there. And Ophelia was the perfect vibe to start things off for the night. (Thanks to the Emma Gibbs band for introducing me to that song)

As I had hoped, the setlist was filled with a lot of songs I recognized including: “long black veil” with Amy on lead vocals, the two songs I knew from the album “got me a woman” and “the girl I left behind.” There was also a song with beautiful harmonies where the instrumentation was only Larry Campbell on violin and Amy, Levon and another female vocalist. This was the first time that it seemed that Levon was struggling a little with his voice, but it somehow only added charm to the song. (I believe this song was Anna Lee)

They also played for a long time! Levon was clearly enjoying himself and he thanked Atlanta many times and said we were all welcome up in Woodstock if we could ever make it up that way. There were some bluesy numbers that just seemed like an opportunity for everyone to solo. Most of the time I think shows get tedious when they move into this territory, but not last night. I don’t know if it was just the vibe on stage or the fact that everyone was such a solid musician, but they always kept it interesting. Everyone also showed off the fact that they were multi-instrumentalists. Levon switched to mandolin for a few songs, Larry Campbell played and soloed on at least 3 instruments, and all of the horns players changed horns regularly.

Towards the end of the 2+ hour set they played The Weight and I realized I DID know Levon’s voice from this song, and I liked the song much more than I had ever realized before. It seemed like they were on their last song several times, and then they finally all got up and looked as though they were heading off stage, but Levon held up his finger and said “one more” to his band mates. And so we got a pseudo encore in “I shall be released.”

This song matched Ophelia in its appropriateness for the end of the show. It feels like it would go great as the closing credits for a film. As the song unfolded, I couldn’t help ponder Levon’s perspective. Until recently he probably thought he would never sing again. Instead he’s touring in support of a successful album with a band that he probably hand picked, and the band even includes his daughter who helped him produce the record (and also happens to be quite attractive). In that moment I felt convinced that there wasn’t any place in the world (or any time in his life) where he would rather be.

That’s what makes a very special show, and I only seem to catch them when I take a gamble.

5 Responses to “Levon Helm Band at the Variety Playhouse 4/9/08”

  1. Noel Mayeske says:

    Nice writeup! I really, really enjoyed this show too… what a blast. I’m a Dylan fanatic so he was my entryway into The Band and thus, to Levon. Good job capturing the spirit of an excellent show. Especially Levon’s grin — that was perhaps the best part of all.

    One note — the woman at left wasn’t his daughter Amy Helm — Amy’s at home taking care of her new baby right now. The woman you identified as Amy (the country singer) is named Catherine Russell, I think.

    Did you get the actual full setlist?

  2. Whit says:

    Thanks Noel,
    yes, another friend also pointed out my error about Amy. His theory was that the woman might be Teresa Williams, Larry Campbell’s wife. If anyone else sees this and knows for sure, please chime in.

    Unfortunately I don’t have a full setlist. That photo gallery from the AJC has a photo of a list with the first 13 songs, but that’s all I got. I forgot about Atlantic City though, that was awesome.

  3. Noel Mayeske says:

    Cool — thanks again for the write-up and comments, Whit.

  4. Rodney Frothingham says:

    Teresa Williams was the lovely blonde(ish) lady with great voice. Anyone remember the name of the other gal who was “filling in for Amy Helm” so to speak? She was great as well.
    As for other songs that I remember: Dirt Farmer (title track to album), It Makes No Difference (sung by Teresa Williams), Shape I’m In, The Weight, I shall Be Released, Chest Fever were all played as well.

  5. Rodney Frothingham says:

    I forgot to add: Rag Mama Rag, I don’t want to Hang Up My R&R Shoes