Former Band member Levon Helm still himself on drums at Wolf Trap show

By Dave McKenna
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 23, 2010

For better or worse, the Band made ensemble playing trendy in rock-and-roll. For the crowd that came out to Wolf Trap to see Levon Helm on Wednesday, "for worse" had a slight edge.

Helm is now 70, and most of those were rock-and-roll years. The lifestyle and various physical ailments, including a bad case of throat cancer that was diagnosed and beaten down over a decade ago, have done a number on Helm. He looked his age and then some when he slowly walked to the stage. But when he sat down on his drummer's throne, the Arkansan and only non-Canadian in the Band exuded the energy of a much younger man. Plainly, Helm was all over the kit. He tapped and banged out every rhythm imaginable, from the up-tempo blues of Sam Cooke's "(Ain't That) Good News" to the New Orleans funk of Dr. John's "On a Mardi Gras Day." From the sound and look of things, Helm could have worked up a speed-metal tempo if the set list required.

But he gave more than equal time to his 11-piece band. Vocal duties were handled mainly by daughter Amy Helm and Teresa Williams. Members of the horn section took solo runs for most songs. The oddest moment of the show came when guitarist Larry Campbell stood alone center stage and started a distorted, heavy-metallish solo that could have been sponsored by Energizer, it kept going and going so long. Campbell, a longtime member of Bob Dylan's touring band, is a fine player, but it's a good bet nobody had bought a ticket to hear him shred. Eventually, Campbell got around to the intro of "Chest Fever," one of the heaviest and best Band tunes ever.

The night's brightest spots came during those too-rare occasions when Helm put the microphone close to his face and tried to sing like his old self -- or, rather, his young self. He traded verses with Campbell on Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell" and gave it everything he had.. But throat cancer didn't leave much of his vocal cords behind, so not much sound came out. Yet the impact of his rasp, and all the work that went into every phrase was incredible, and the crowd roared its appreciation. Nobody bought a ticket to hear Pavarotti, either.

McKenna is a freelance writer.

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