Thursday, January 14, 2010

Music: The Levon Helm Band @ Terminal 5, 1/7/10

“Haven’t seen you since Woodstock!”

That was what a man next to us shouted as Levon Helm bounded onto the stage, beamed at the audience, and took up his place behind the drumset. There was an air of celebration and reconnection all through Terminal 5 on January 7th, as sentiments similar to the man next to us were yelled in Levon’s direction while he and his band launched into opener “The Shape I’m In.” It was a fitting opener to an exhilarating show that proved that after throat surgery last August, Levon is in fantastic shape.

The Levon Helm Band, made up of eleven talented (and in some cases legendary) session and solo musicians, performed a tight set of Americana classics and songs off the group’s Grammy nominated Electric Dirt. The energy flowed from the band to the audience, which created a feeling of community that lasted throughout the two hour set.

Most of the night Levon relied on his capable band to handle lead vocal duties as evidenced on the gorgeous, nearly a capella version of the Grateful Dead's “Attics of My Life.” The three-part harmony between de facto front man Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, and Amy Helm was a welcome tribute to the era in which Helm got his start. Tributes like these were numerous throughout the night. Helm’s band performed tunes from The Band's catalog including “Chest Fever” and a haunting performance of “Long Black Veil” that brought the audience back to The Band’s heyday.

Because Levon lost his voice on his previous tour, the venue’s announcer warned the audience that although the recovery process had been slow, Levon looked great and was ready to sing. The anticipation to hear Helm’s own voice grew during the first half of the set as the audience watched him pound the drums and play the mandolin. Every member of the audience was watching the side of the stage to see exactly when the stagehand would finally move Levon’s microphone in front of him. When he belted out the first few notes of “Tennessee Jed” in harmony with Campbell, the entirety of Terminal 5 erupted. Despite the announcer’s initial warning, Helm was in fantastic voice. There are notes of experience in it that could only come with decades of touring, but in no way did it bear any signs of damage or wear.

The special guest for the evening was Donald Fagen, one-half of jazz-rock group Steely Dan. While it was initially jarring to see someone commonly associated with studio perfectionism share the stage with an Americana legend, the two came together beautifully when the Levon Helm Band played Steely Dan original “Black Friday.” Fagen also took lead vocals on a number of songs throughout the night to wonderful effect.

Opener Okkervil River also proved to fit the night perfectly. The indie rock band played a short set of their more well-known and energetic songs and paid tribute to their Americana influence about halfway through with a song off The Basement Tapes. Frontman Will Sheff was in fine form, alternating between cracked yells and croons, trying to get as close to every member of his band as possible. Multi-instrumentalist Lauren Gurgiolo also provided many high points throughout the band’s set, playing mandolin, pedal steel, electric guitar and banjo with aplomb and a genuine sense of excitement. The vocal harmonies could’ve been higher in the mix, but the band’s energy made up for any issues with sound.

The crowd was a diverse mix of Okkervil River fans, young Levon Helm fans who may have believed up until that night that they were born too late to see Helm sing, and older, long-time Helm fans who seemed to be brought back in time with every note. If the people immediately surrounding us on the floor were any indication, both bands gained new fans that night, as people both familiar and unfamiliar watched them with appreciation and awe. The shared joy and mutual appreciation for the performances of the night proved what a powerful influence Helm has continued to have on Americana music.

The word that came to mind over and over the entire night was Joy. Helm danced, constantly blew kisses at the audience, and beamed from ear to ear all night long. Sheff screamed every note of Okkervil River’s closer “Unless It’s Kicks” with increasing jubilation, commanding everyone from the floor up to the third tier to clap and raise their hands higher and higher in anticipation of Levon’s performance. Every audience member surrounding us murmured or shouted at least one joyous “oh my god!” at some point in the evening.

The most joyous moments for us came at the end of the night. Being able to hear Levon Helm sing closer “The Weight” was something we never thought we would be able to claim. That Levon sounded just as good on it as he did during The Last Waltz made it even more special. Encore “I Shall Be Released,” led by Fagen and sung at top volume by both band and audience, was just as powerful. As the song slowed down and voices petered out, Fagen let out a chuckle that was indicative of the night. Before Levon and the band left the stage a second time, Campbell invited everyone in the crowd to come up to Woodstock and see Levon again. Levon blew kisses, waved, and beckoned to the crowd to reiterate Campbell’s point. There was little doubt that many of those in Terminal 5 would return to Woodstock to take them up on that offer.

By Ryan Batie and Nora Bergin

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