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In concert: Levon Helm at Wolf Trap

levon helmThe best moments of Levon Helm's show at Wolf Trap were when he kept the spotlight on himself. (All photos by Josh Sisk/FTWP)

By Dave McKenna

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 energy of a much younger man.

Plainly, Helm was all over the kit. He tapped and banged out every rhythm imaginable, from the uptempo 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.

levon helm

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 when his turns came. 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 Helm tried to get out, was incredible, and the crowd roared its appreciation when he'd finished. Nobody bought a ticket to hear Pavarotti, either.

levon helm

levon helm

levon helm

By Dave McKenna  |  July 22, 2010; 12:25 PM ET
Categories:  In concert  | Tags: Levon Helm  
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Comments

I have to say I was disappointed that Levon did not sing more. I purchased my $45 ticket with knowledge of Levon's past health issues, but I was had heard from recent concert goers, that these issues had been put to rest. He was noticably blowing his nose between each number and when he did sing, I had mixed feeelings on him passing on that function. Nonetheless, a was a bit bummed about his non-perfomance

Posted by: jhlowe1 | July 22, 2010 1:44 PM | Report abuse

yeah, he sounds really good on dirt farmer, but that is in the sudio in a controlled environment. i suspect that a) he was sick, i too saw the kleenex b) his fragile voice can't stand the rigors of touring anymore. wonder how many dates they had done before this? also, the campbell solo was just plain silly. i thought the era of the unaccompanied guitar solo was dead. i thought jim weider's playing was much better all around. great band, very muscular sound.

Posted by: joshuasto | July 22, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

I wish I could go back in time to see The Band at their peak, but this was the next best thing. It was a great concert overall. Most of the Band numbers that they covered were Manual or Danko's songs anyway, so it made sense to farm out the vocals, and like The Band all the vocalists were strong. "Bourgeois Blues" was a brilliant wildcard choice. The introduction to "Chest Fever" was Garth Hudson's "Genetic Method" put to guitar--mutated, if you like. I would've preferred to see Garth walk out from the wings and take a turn at the keyboards, but I guess that's not happening anytime soon.

I really didn't mind the ensemble nature of the show--like you say, that was always the Band's MO, and I think it speaks well to Levon's generosity (and good sense) that he allowed his bandmates to share the spotlight. Music is supposed to move, after all; better a mix of reworked favorites and new material than a Levon museum.

Posted by: dwmacg1 | July 22, 2010 2:06 PM | Report abuse

Ensemble playing, as you put it, is exactly what Levon and friends DO. As the kids used to say, "Duh!"

Wanna hear renditions, note for note, of all the hits? then just stay home and play your greatest hits CDs.

Posted by: jnowlan | July 23, 2010 1:10 PM | Report abuse

I got steamed reading this review and felt I had to provide an excuse for Levon's voice loss. The heat, the humidity, it was code orange you know. Then I thought about this preposterous idea. Does Hall of famer Levon Helm need me to take up for him? No, he does not. Who am I? Just some cheapskate who sat on the lawn but wishes he'd spent the $45 and been closer.

The show was awesome. What a band! I sat there, gluteus aching, listening to every song, amazed at how incredibly good that band sounds. But mostly I listened to Levon and his drums. Each little fill made me smile with joy and every time he ting-ting-tinged the crown of his ride cymbal I giggled and cheered.

If you were disappointed in the show (???) and want to hear Levon sing more at his next appearance, you're in luck. He's at Floydfest Saturday night. It's only 281 miles from Wolftrap.

Posted by: enkenney | July 23, 2010 8:38 PM | Report abuse

I saw Levon on the 24th at Floydfest.
I you don't want to spend time and research what the artist is playing on the tour,then quit whining.
His set lists for the last month are online as well as live recordings for nearly every show.Do your homework and find some mainstream crap that was produced by a computer and go to that show.
Thats were you belong.
And I mean this in the nicest way.

Posted by: iwoodfish | July 25, 2010 9:04 PM | Report abuse

I saw Levon on the 24th at Floydfest.
I you don't want to spend time and research what the artist is playing on the tour,then quit whining.
His set lists for the last month are online as well as live recordings for nearly every show.Do your homework and find some mainstream crap that was produced by a computer and go to that show.
Thats were you belong.
And I mean this in the nicest way.

Posted by: iwoodfish | July 25, 2010 9:05 PM | Report abuse

i enjoyed levon, but i agree that i didn't want to hear shreddin' guitar;-}

i only heard the band once, april '71, lehigh u...garth hudson played his long intro to chest fever, and it was a mini-opera, the villain tying the heroine to the tracks & all;-)

levon's keyboard player was good, hammond b4 & all, but i rilly miss garth;-}

Posted by: airdrummer2 | July 26, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

Glad I saw him in Baltimore a couple of years ago when his voice was strong and he sang almost every song. He was a legend that night! I think WP reviewed the show.

Posted by: jhwpro | July 27, 2010 12:05 PM | Report abuse

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