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Bluesy Helm Makes Summer Memories

by David Malachowski

This review of the July 3, 1999 concert with Levon Helm and the Classic Blues Band at Bearsville Theatre, Woodstock, was first published on Sunday, July 4, 1999 in The Times Union. Copyright © 1999, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y

As singer and drummer for Rock and Roll Hall of Famers The Band, Levon Helm, who hailed from Arkansas, was a key ingredient in the timeless and evocative recordings they made from 1968 to 1976. Despite the fact that the rest of the group was Canadian, their music represented some of the purest examples of the essence of Americana.

Here at the Bearsville Theater, longtime Woodstock resident Helm gathered a few of his friends together to launch his little yet-to-be-named blues band (the Barn Burners is a strong contender at the moment). And what a crew of friends it was.

They kicked things off with a cache of Chicago blues shuffles and a few jump swing tunes as well, with a sound that was raw, nasty and, well, unclean. Current musical director for "Late Night with Conan O'Brien,'' Jimmy Vivino quickly joined the fray with some stinging slide guitar work. He easily fell into a bandleader/MC role as the cavalcade of guest stars began.

First out was Amy Helm, who simmered through "I Just Wanna Make Love To You,'' stretching from a breathy whisper to a sultry wail. With "Fever,'' they brought out singer/multi-instrumentalist Mindy Jostyn, who traded verses with Amy as well as adding burning harp and fiddle solo.

Bringing out the legendary Phoebe Snow, Vivino quipped,"We're gonna have to raise the roof for her.'' Within seconds, Snow raised the roof herself, with a soaring, rich, vibrato-laden contralto of unbelievable range and control. Quite simply, Snow has to possess one of the best voices in the world. Soon she had some new helpers, Donald Fagen (on melodica) and Walter Becker (on guitar) who strolled out looking like lost college professors (this basically meant she had been joined by Steely Dan). At this point, it began to resemble Fagen's renowned New York Rock and Soul Revue. Even in the presence of these heavy hitters, Snow took total command of the room with a jaw-dropping take of "Bring It On Home To Me'' that earned her a standing ovation, as Becker pulled off a handful of solos with fine finesse and style.

Just when you thought you'd seen everything, Garth Hudson pulls up a chair and straps on an accordion. He spent an excruciating amount of time plugging in, but finally offered one of the more melodic and musical solos of the night. With the theater's barn-style ceiling and exposed wood, it was the perfect place for this pure and honest music. And it was so Woodstock.

The performances were all devastatingly good, which was not an easy feat, since no one played or relied on their signature tunes; this was blues night, and they all stuck to the program, thank you very much. The only downside of the whole evening was that Helm himself, who has one of the most soulful voices in music, did not sing a lick, content to sway and bounce behind the drums, and provide the heart and soul of the band, which isn't an unusual role for him. Helm played with power and economy, and put care into each well-placed snare hit, and smiled like he was having the time of his life.

Two hours later, both the band and crowd were drenched in sweat, worn out and completely satisfied. This might just have been the most memorable show of the summer.

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