Didn't it Rain
As soon as the studied cool and rich, rootsy drive settles in on Amy Helm's sumptuous debut album Didn't It Rain, you sense a welcome though unexpected sense of stylistic displacement.
A native of the Woodstock region of New York, the singer possesses a singing style steeped in Southern gospel-soul as well as a pure roots rock immediacy that sounds like it was conjured on the West Coast at the dawn of the 1970s. Her tone is assertive but sweet while the delivery is wildly confident, yet unhurried. In the case of a tune like Sky's Falling, the great R&B empress Ann Peebles comes to mind. But you could probably find a vintage inspiration to pin to any of the dozen songs that make up Didn't It Rain, eight of which the singer wrote or co-wrote. But Helm dresses this music with a voice that uses those inspirations simply as reference points. The album's effortless poise, vigor and soulfulness is all her own doing.
The drum rumble of the album-opening title tune nicely sets the mood with a bone rattling groove and colors of slide guitar that rain like buckshot over a punctuated melody. Helm's singing is churchy to the point of being incantatory with a gliding wail full of grit and grace. The party just gets hotter from there.
Among the general influences that greet you is the kind of Bonnie Raitt-Little Feat rock and soul feel that Warner Bros. Records cooked up in California more than four decades ago. Part of that is unavoidable. Feat co-founder Bill Payne guests on Sky's Falling, but also helps orchestrate the glowing soul affirmation Rescue Me on piano with subtle shades of gospel that Helm sings to gloriously.
Bassist Byron Issacs, Helm's bandmate in the great New York Americana-soul troupe Ollabelle, doubles as producer. He also pens several tunes here with Helm, the best being Heat Lightning, a commanding rocker that employs a nasty, jagged guitar riff to trigger a country shuffle that sets up Helm's soul-savvy vocal lead.
There is, of course, a prime guiding spirit throughout all of Didn't It Rain: the singer's legendary father, Levon Helm. Drum tracks cut by the elder Helm prior to his death in 2012 are featured on three songs including a rapturous version of Martha Scanlon's Spend Our Last Dime. You even hear his voice, raspy but defiantly robust, kicking the tune off. The resulting music unfolds like a country waltz with daughter Helm proudly piloting the ensuing celebration.
Didn't It Rain may mark Helm's arrival as a solo artist. But her extensive work in Ollabelle and her father's final recordings (and famed Midnight Ramble performances) have fashioned her into something of a roots-rock scholar. Such wisdom flows richly and openly on this sublime record.
Walter Tunis | Contributing Music Critic