Love for Levon
The celebrity status accorded Levon Helm during his final years was a curious thing. Not that it wasn't richly deserved, mind you.
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As one of the three lead singers of The Band, he helped to forge a generational voice for a roots-rock hybrid commonly referred to today as Americana. But the deaths of The Band's other vocal giants (Richard Manuel and Rick Danko) through the years barely caused a mainstream ripple. Helm, by comparison, has been positively adored.
Hence a new tribute concert recording titled Love for Levon, which is a testament to the boundless enthusiasm of his drum work and singing, and a benefit for the barn studio where Helm's famed Midnight Ramble concert series originated.
Recorded at a summit concert in October — roughly six months after Helm died of cancer — Love for Levon doesn't stand on ceremony. It brings together contemporaries (Gregg Allman, John Prine, Mavis Staples), unlikely peers (Roger Waters, John Hiatt, Bruce Hornsby, Lucinda Williams), new-generation disciples (My Morning Jacket, Grace Potter, Jakob Dylan), a relative (Ollabelle's Amy Helm, the drummer's daughter) and a Band-mate (keyboardist Garth Hudson).
From there, the repertoire leans understandably heavy on tunes by The Band. But the choices aren't always obvious.
Dylan, perhaps more than anyone, gets the idea of what's to be done. He serves up a fun, spirited version of the Clarence Frogman Henry hit Ain't Got No Home that Helm interpreted on The Band's 1973 covers album Moondog Matinee. The loose, brassy groove that surround's Dylan's version also encapsulates the roots-driven charm of the Midnight Ramble shows.
Another delight is Allen Toussaint's treatment of Life Is a Carnival, the 1971 Band tune that boasted one of Helm's most underappreciated vocal performances. Toussaint had arranged the horn charts for the original Life is a Carnival. This time, though, he funks up the groove with a solid New Orleans charge.
Other delights come from Warren Haynes and Hiatt, who unlock joyous senses of soul in two early Band classics, The Shape I'm In and Rag Mama Rag. Bonus points go to David Bromberg, whose treatment of the Motown hit Don't Do It (which Helm made his own on the Band's classic 1972 live album Rock of Ages) abounds with righteous cheer.
Eric Church, John Mayer and Dierks Bentley let the energy slip a bit on the second disc, although hearing Hudson amp up Chest Fever alongside Bentley with the same mischievous keyboard rampage that colored The Band's early-'70s shows is a true blast.
But the vibe is what sells Love for Levon. It runs deep in the playfulness of these performances to empower the spirit behind one of rock 'n' roll's least likely heroes.
Walter Tunis, contributing music writer