Last night Levon Helm finally brought his Ramble to Philly, playing the Electric Factory. It was Helm’s second Philly appearance in the 21st Century, the first being a show by his blues group The Barn Burners at a River Jam, where following his surgery for throat Cancer, Helm did not sing. It was his second appearance at the Electric Factory, the last being what turned out to be the (reformed) Band’s final appearance in Philadelphia about 12 or 13 years ago. That show was so lackluster with blown intros and other musical disasters I decided I would not see The Band in that incarnation again, a major decision since The Band was, has been and always will be my favorite group.
Helm has played Philly many times over the three decades since the original Band broke up and it hasn’t always been illustrious, especially considering the heights The Band achieved onstage. His first group, Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars debuted here at the Tower Theater. This was a super group if ever there was one and the members included Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, and the three surviving members of Booker T. & the MGS. However only bassist Duck Dunn showed up. Booker T. and legendary guitarist Steve Cropper were nowhere to be found. The show was short, ill-rehearsed, and it seemed more attention was paid to the flags and hockey banners that decorated the stage to the music. The audience, hardcore fans of all the musicians with several local musicians in attendance was more than disappointed, they felt ripped off.
Other appearances whether on his own, with Rick Danko or with the (reformed) Band while sometimes quite good, and often, especially the shows with Danko, a lot of fun relied too much on cover songs or blues they didn’t have to think about playing or put too much effort into. All this was on my mind as I went to the show last night.
I arrived in time to see opening act, Ollabelle who are a regular part of Helm’s Rambles and usually feature his daughter Amy. However Amy gave birth last weekend, so for obvious reasons wasn’t at the show. I’d never seen Ollabelle before, and they were quite good, playing roots based rock and roll with a wide range of influences from country to gospel. However their 45 minute set was hampered by bad sound with the acoustic guitars getting lost in the sound bouncing around the cavernous warehouse of a club. They sound problems made them sound less cohesive than they actually were. The standout was a song about brotherhood by bassist Byron Issacs.
There was about a 20 minute break before the Levon Helm Band took the stage. Amazingly enough they were introduced lovingly by Larry Magid, the head and founder of Electric Factory Concerts. In nearly 40 years of going to Electric Factory shows, I’ve never seen Magid introduce anyone, and his into signaled this was potentially going to be a special show.
Levon and his large group featuring a four-piece horn section took the stage and launched into Chuck Berry’s “Going Back To Memphis,” which the Band covered a few times on their final tours. With his drums on the right side of the stage so you could see him play (where they were with The Band) it was obvious from the first beat what an incredible drummer he is and he was driving the song like a madman. The drums were mixed loud, louder than any other instrument threatening to overpower his voice. Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh (It Takes A Train To Cry)” followed and then they jumped right into “Ophelia.”
Then Little Sammy Davis was introduced. He’s a blues singer and harp player and a regular part of the Rambles. He’s a better harp player than he is a singer. He did three blues staples which was enough.
It quickly became apparent that the show was really a revue with various singers taking the stage including guitarist Larry Campbell’s wife, Teresa Williams, as well as the two women singers from Olabelle, with Ollabelles’ drummer Tony Leone filling in on drums when Levon left the kit to play mandolin.
The band fronted by guitarists Larry Campbell and Jimmy Vivino, with Mike Merritt on bass and Brian Mitchell on keyboards. The horn section included the great Howard Johnson playing several instruments including tuba. Johnson was part of every horn section the Band used from Rock of Ages through the Last Waltz.
There were many highlights and many tributes. Teresa Williams was excellent on “Long Black Veil,” and a beautiful country song with Larry singing great harmony possibly titled “If You Would Love Me Again.” In another time or place, they could easily be an act on their own.
Jimmy Vivino did a great version of Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home” with some additional verses, but using the arrangement Bob Dylan and the Band did at the Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert. It was simply fantastic and at the end, he said, “Thanks Woody.”
Somewhere in the middle of the show Levon finally left the drums and took a stool in the middle of the stage to do a song from his new Grammy winning album, “Dirt Farmer,” “Got Me A Woman.” He followed that with “Ashes of Love” and possibly because it was Philly, Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.”
He returned to the kit for more blues and R&B with a superb version of “Rain Down Tears” with Teresa Williams singing great backup. It easily surpassed the version on the RCO All-Stars album.
Alternating songs with other singers gave Helm a chance to rest his voice and his vocals did get stronger, sometimes amazingly, as the night went on.
Larry Campbell did a terrific “Goin’ Go Get My Baby Out of Jail,” and Helm returned to center stage one more time to do one of the highlights of “Dirt Farmer,” “Anna Lee,” backed only by Campbell on fiddle and Teresa Williams on harmony. It was stunning. Campell stayed on fiddle for “Rag Mama Rag” with Helm on mandolin and Brian Mitchell coming damn close to Garth Hudson on piano.
Little Sammy returned for “Baby, Scratch My Back,” and then Mitchell did, “I Thought I’d Heard Buddy Bolden Say,” which featured lengthy solos from each member of the horn section.
The show after a fine “I Don’t Wanna Hang Up My Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes” concluded with several Band songs. Vivino led off doing a soulful “Tears of Rage,” Mitchell did, “The Shape I’m In,” and then Larry Campbell did “Chest Fever” starting off solo on guitar playing his own version of the Garth Hudson intro, it was beyond incredible.
Never leaving the stage they encored with “The Weight” with everyone singing, often tossing lines between the singers in a verse.
Throughout the night it was impossible to keep my eyes of Helm’s drums which were directly in front of me and notice how he’d handle different songs. What was truly interesting was he played the most complicated patterns on the songs he sang on and while he was singing and would lay back a bit when others were singing so as not to take away from their performance.
Much of the credit for this band’s sound has to go to Larry Campbell. Always the consummate team player, he knows exactly what to do, but just as important what not to do. It was obvious he was a large part of keeping the band together and keeping the show moving. For those who thought Campbell and Charlie Sexton were a great combination when they were in Dylan’s band together, Campbell and Jimmy Vivino are perhaps an even better combination. Both are in total command of their instruments, obviously capable of playing just about anything, but they always put the music and the songs first. It’s never about one-upmanship, it’s never about showboating. The times when they alternated leads, it was always to propel each other to greater heights.
Vivino is particularly impressive as a performer. It is obvious that he just loves the music, and his having a great time playing it and that great time is conveyed at every turn.
Of course Levon Helm displayed the same enthusiasm. You could see him smiling and getting off on every solo, every vocal and he was generous in making sure every member of the band, every guest performer got their turn in the spotlight.
While I would have liked to have seen more songs from “Dirt Farmer,” (which may or may not happen when Amy Helm returns), which I thought was THE album of last year, what the show was, was a grand celebration of American roots music. All the bases were covered from traditional country to folk, honky-tonk, Woody Guthrie, blues, R&B, New Orleans, jazz, Dylan, Springsteen and of course rock and roll. It is probably everything he’s been trying to do all along throughout his career and he’s finally achieved it. This was the first show of this tour and it will probably get even better and tighter as it continues.