And He Shall Be Levon

January 8th, 2010

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Levon Helm is a national treasure. As the backbone and one of the main voices of the Band, he’s played an integral part in American music for more than 40 years. Despite a bout with throat cancer, he’s persevered and has even begun recording music again—releasing two new albums since 2007—and hosting Midnight Rambles at his home studio in Woodstock. (And unless you’re getting married or having a child that day, there’s no better way to spend a Saturday night.) He had a minor setback, needing throat surgery in August, and hasn’t been allowed to sing much since then. But while his distinctive lion’s growl of a voice has been temporarily quieted, Levon Helm can still play the drums like a motherfucker.

Last night, before a captive Terminal 5 audience, Helm, backed by 11 remarkably talented musicians—including special guest Donald Fagen—started off hot with the Band’s ode to Richard Manuel, “The Shape I’m In.” After dabbling in some sweet NOLA music (“Let’s go to New Orleans for a little bit,” said Larry Campbell, frontman of this band and long-time sideman for Bob Dylan), Teresa Williams, Campbell’s wife, and Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter, dueted on an elegant take on “Long Black Veil.” Levon then stepped from behind the kit to take a stool at center stage and played the mandolin on a terrific, horns-backed “Deep Elem Blues,” which drew loud applause from the crowd.

But what really got the audience excited was when Levon sang the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” his voice sounding much stronger than anyone had expected. Following a full-band take on “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning” and Steely Dan’s “Black Friday,” led by Fagen’s soulful voice, the Levon Helm Band turned to the Band: “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” “It Makes No Difference” (the greatest break-up song ever), hauntingly sung by Williams and Amy Helm, and then “Chest Fever,” with Campbell playing Garth Hudson’s long organ intro on his Strat. They closed with “The Weight,” with Levon boisterously singing “Well, Luke my friend” to rousing applause. The show could’ve ended right there, but the band came back out for one more, “I Shall Be Released,” and they killed it. Levon, bowing and blowing kisses to the crowd, then waved a white towel and headed offstage. And we stepped out into the night, smiling all the way. —R. Zizmor