The Levon Helm Band
October 1, 2005
Peabody Hotel Ballroom, Little Rock, AR
After hearing Levon and his band play some of the best music I’ve heard in a long, long time last May, I was expecting great things from this concert. My expectations were fulfilled- I loved this show.
This being Levon Helm’s first public performance in Arkansas in several years, the band walked on stage to a standing ovation. The opening number, “Sing Sing Sing” grabbed the audience from the get-go as Levon belted out the lead while Jimmy Vivino, Larry Campbell, and Amy Helm provided a strong chorus of backing vocals. What was immediately apparent was how the ensemble has gelled as a band. It’s indescribable, really, how a band becomes greater than the sum of its parts, but the Levon Helm Band delivered this elusive quality all night. The momentum was really amazing. For the first half dozen numbers it seemed like the energy of every song was bigger, better, and greater than the songs preceding.
“Take Me To The River” was a high point for me. The mid-song guitar duel between Campbell and Vivino was inspired and full of fire. Campbell's fluid style was a great complement to Vivino's harder-edged approach. When they broke the groove down to a swampy vamp on "Suzie Q" I half-expected Dale Hawkins to show up, but Levon shifted seamlessly back into the “Take Me To The River.” Breathtaking.
The acoustic section of the show felt like an intimate interlude on an old back porch. The stage was empty except for Levon on mandolin, Larry on fiddle, Amy on vocals, and Jimmy on acoustic guitar. The waltzy "Evangeline" featured some great harmonies from Amy. The Bruce Springsteen tune "Atlantic City" was superb- another case of Levon making someone else's song his own. The old gospel standard, “Angel Band,” delivered more sweet harmonies all around. “Don't You Tell Henry” (the second of two "Basement Tapes" songs) was a high-energy romp as Levon strummed mandolin with the full band –including Amy on drums- behind him.
Levon got back behind the drums for the finale- a strong dose of straight-up rock & roll. Dylan’s classic “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry,” was a rollicking, up-tempo rendition that put a smile on every face. The momentum continued with “When The Battle Is Over,” and the band left the stage.
With the audience on their feet and cheering for an encore, the band returned to play the joyously defiant “(I Don’t Want To) Hang Up My Rock & Roll Shoes.” It was a perfect ending for a musical visionary who’s in a late-career renaissance. Levon’s shoes are fitting him well these days, and he’s not about to stop walking. Amy closed the show with the soulful “Shake A Hand.” The song felt like a felt like a big group hug.
In sum, 400 people enjoyed a night of really fine ensemble playing and singing by an all-star band devoid of egos and star trips. The band was having a blast, and the feeling was infectious. Levon’s voice continues to get stronger, and his drumming was solid and authoritative. Special kudos are in order for the boys on the brass, Eric Lawrence on saxophones and Steven Bernstein on trumpet. Their beefy horn lines were consistent crowd pleasers.
The concert started with a laid-back set from Sean Rock, a central Arkansas singer-songwriter-guitarist who was backed by Roland Gladden on upright bass and Jeff Clanton on mandolin and dobro. The trio’s deft playing and solid songcraft were very well received. Their deeply rooted Americana is both melodic and accessible. The trio comprises three-fifths of local heroes Lookback Marys. Find their music at their website at www.lookbackmarys.com .
In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that the author of this article booked and co-promoted the concert. If this seems less than objective, check out another review at www.levonhelm.com by Jack Hill of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.
Also, a special thank-you goes out to Jason Weinheimer of the local band The Boondogs, who loaned his prize Gibson acoustic to the band at the last minute. For more good music, check out the Boondogs at http://www.boondogs.com/ .
The Levon Helm Band is:
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