Playing to Beat the Band

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 26, 2008

BALTIMORE -- Rock-and-roll survivor Levon Helm shuffled onto the Rams Head Live stage Thursday looking like an old bantamweight fighter, what with a capelike jacket draped over his slight shoulders.

How appropriate, for the 67-year-old musician came out swinging: Sitting down at his drum kit near the front of the stage, Helm put a glove on his left hand and began pounding out a frisky, syncopated backbeat while he bobbed and weaved on his stool.

Singing, too, in that ragged Southern growl of his, Helm led his sprawling band through the ragtime rock of "Ophelia," a three-decades-old song by his great old group, the Band.

As concert openers go, it was a knockout -- a rollicking, brassy, soul-stirring slice of musical Americana. At its conclusion, Helm exulted, gesturing excitedly at his accompanists and beaming at the roaring crowd.

The show was loaded with such winning moments as the Levon Helm Band hit high mark after high mark during a freewheeling hootenanny that ran for nearly 2 1/2 hours.

It was a tour de force of a concert, not to mention a remarkably wide-ranging tour of American roots music: Helm and a dozen other musicians -- including a five-piece horn section -- performed everything from folk, Chicago blues and gospel to R&B, bluegrass and even a bit of zydeco.

In other words, it was not unlike the Midnight Rambles that Helm stages at his home in Woodstock, N.Y. It was also reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's similarly brilliant Seeger Sessions tour, though Springsteen mostly stuck to very old folk songs, whereas Helm's 26-song set included a feisty version of Springsteen's own "Atlantic City" on which Helm played mandolin.

That Helm is performing anywhere these days is a blessing, as time and, especially, cigarettes were not kind to him. About a decade ago, he got a diagnosis of cancer of the vocal cords, an apparent result of having smoked three packs a day. He went through 28 radiation sessions and literally lost his voice, the one that had anchored some of the Band's greatest songs, including "The Weight."

But it gradually returned, and by last year Helm was well enough to record his first solo album in 25 years: "Dirt Farmer," which won the Grammy for best traditional folk album in February. (The Band received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award at the same ceremony; it's also been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)

"We live in an age of miracles," Helm wrote in "Dirt Farmer's" liner notes. Onstage here, he didn't say much at all, preserving his voice for the songs, about half of which he sang himself; a rotating cast of singers, including his daughter Amy, handled the other leads.

The old country tune "Long Black Veil" was sung by Teresa Williams, who has the pure, powerful voice of an old Grand Ole Opry singer. Her husband, the terrific multi-instrumentalist and former Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell, also sang some, including a howling version of the Band's "Chest Fever."

Whereas Campbell's voice was effortless and sweet and sort of sounded like Paul Stanley's (yes, the guy from Kiss), Helm sang from the gut in an aching, earthy voice that showed its frayed seams. Indeed, he sounds wearier and more weathered now; his vocals have an extra, somewhat eerie layer of gravitas. That was especially true during his verses in the show's elegiac encore, a cover of Dylan's "Basement Tapes" tune "I Shall Be Released."

"Any day now, any day now, I shall be released," Helm sang, his voice pushing skyward on a song that was included on the Band's debut, "Music From Big Pink." That album was released 40 years ago. Then, the Band performed "I Shall Be Released" again near the end of "The Last Waltz," Martin Scorsese's 1978 documentary about the group's famous farewell performance.

Now, 30 years later, here was Helm, the survivor, singing it again, delivering yet another knockout.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company