Sunday, September 27, 2009

Flowers for Levon?

Went to see a Levon Helm show on Saturday and a Steely Dan show broke out.

Actually, it wasn't that extreme. Levon brought his Midnight Ramble jamboree to The Stanley Theater in Utica, a beautifully renovated old playhouse in a decidedly unbeautiful city. J. and I have seen Levon a couple of times in the last few years, once at his studio in Woodstock, another at a mini-festival with Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst, The Swell Season and others at SPAC. R. is a recent convert to The Band and wanted to go.

My cousin's boyfriend worked at the Ramble for years and tipped me off to the fact that Levon wasn't singing again. Several years back, Helm was down and out, a victim of bad finances and throat cancer. Miraculously, and heroically, he regained his voice and, though it was more frail than in times past, it was wonderfully emotive. A Grammy followed for Dirt Farmer and a new disc, Electric Dirt, carried the comeback further. I didn't want to tell R. and J. that Levon wouldn't warble, but I wasn't sure and it felt more prudent to wait and see.

A local DJ, looking like every other local DJ you've ever seen, pudgy, unwashed and pony tailed, came out to introduce the show. He announced Levon wouldn't sing, "but you knew that." I didn't think that was so well-known. Then he chastised any potential refund seekers. "There will be some assholes who'll want their money back." Really, that's what people are who bought tickets expecting a certain kind of show and now weren't going to get it? Look in the mirror, asswipe.

Now the big surprise to me was that Donald Fagan of Steely Dan was sitting in with the band. J. noticed it on the marquee as we entered the hall, but later I found out that it was announced a few days back. I'm not much of a Steely Dan fan, although I do love "Deacon Blues," and the presence of Fagan did nothing to neutralize the loss of Helm. Yet, there was an indisputable excitement to having another legend on the stage. It was very cool and the highlight of the show was Fagan's lead vocal on "King Harvest (Has Surely Come), with the intro sung by Amy Helm and Teresa Williams.

Teresa's husband, Larry Campbell, has emerged as the leader of these shindigs and he is a fabulous guitar/mandolin/violin player, but he doesn't have the presence to carry a show with a silent Levon. That' s not to say that the performance wasn't crowd-pleasing and electrifying. There were a ton of great musicians on that stage, including keyboardist Brian Mitchell, who should seek medication for his Dr. John fixation. Even mute, Levon stole the show, dancing a bit and clearly in charge of the group. He was clearly touched by the overwhelming support and love that emanated from the crowd. In recent years, Levon has benefited from the good will of his fans and entourage, who kept him afloat when he was down. Though I've heard that the Ramble has become more of a business than a family affair, and I've noticed that the show in Woodstock is more polished than it was 3 or 4 years ago, Levon seems pretty nice to those who've been part of his network. Except, of course, for Robbie Robertson. Levon thinks Robbie ripped him off.

The star of the show, in comic relief, was the spotlight guy. Don't know where they got this dude, but he was incapable of finding the soloist. When Campbell played a few mean choruses, spotlight guy was focused on Jim Weider. When Weider tore into a furious riff, Campbell was lit up. The best was when the spotlight would roam the stage in search of the proper musician. I think it was the same spotlight guy from the old Looney Tunes cartoons who would never hone in on Daffy.

So, will Levon get his voice back? Campbell indicated it was coming back, but who knows. My thoughts often turned to Flowers for Algernon. In that book, a retarded man becomes the beneficiary of a miracle cure and becomes a genius. Slowly, the medicine wears off and, by the end, he's back to where he started. Let's hope for a better end for Levon Helm. He's earned it.

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