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Regards for Everyone

by Christopher Lenois

Travel report/review from a visit to Levon's Cafe in New Orleans, New Year 1998/99.
Copyright © 1999 Chris Lenois.

"Hey Levon, this looks like your living room." Rick turns back from facing the audience to address the Band's drummer and proprietor of Levon Helm's Classic American Café, who with about one hour left in 1998, is settling behind the drum kit for The Band's New Year's Eve show.

Onlookers on the club's dance floor began swirling and bouncing the moment Richard Bell began the opening trill to "Stagefright". The familiarity with The Band's repertoire seemed consistent with Rick's assertion that there was an extended intimacy between musician and audience. But it is the power and the message of their music to make audience members feel as if they've been invited in to their inner circle. Having no personal relationship with the group myself, I cannot say for sure who did and didn't know The Band personally. Before the show, I stood next to Jimmy Weider as he shook hands, laughed and talked with people he clearly knew. Perhaps it was a sort of family gathering that I had been invited to crash.

Hell, I wasn't even born by the time they were done touring with Bob Dylan. In fact at 28, I seemed to be far and away the youngest of the approximately 350 fans on hand. The only exceptions were probably some of the Café staff, and my lovely girlfriend, Robyn, who is a year my junior. I'd been trying to induce The Band in to her musical diet since our first date (with moderate success). She had lived here before and suggested a New Orleans visit for New Year's (we currently live in New York City). She began plying me with cheap airfares dug up from the Internet along with a print out of Offbeat Magazine's interview with Levon Helm about the opening of his club and promoting their New Year's performance. Not that I needed much convincing to go to New Orleans, but she pushed all the right buttons. We flew in that evening and after checking in to our hotel room, she suffered me to immediately head to the club, arriving there around 10:30 p.m. I hoped she wasn't regretting it after getting hit on by some forty-something guy ("Are you ready to rock?" he asked her.) while I obtained drinks from the bar. But then came "Stagefright", with its Toussaint horn arrangements reaching their crescendo, and Garth Hudson front and center building yet another unique musical bridge to Rick's final chorus. We were dancing with the same wild abandon as those around us who probably remembered seeing the Band when they were our age, or when The Band was our age for that matter.

Now the stage at Levon's is a big one for the size of the club, but they managed to occupy every square inch of space. There were senior members (Helm, Danko, Hudson), junior members (Weider, Bell, Ciarlante), three New Orleans horn players (would love to get their names), a few Crowmatix sprinkled in for good measure (Hurwitz, Spinosa, Dunn) and Levon's daughter, Amy. The stage held up fine under the stress. Much better than the sound system, which unfortunately failed to pick up Levon's vocals when they launched in to "Ophelia". Rick and Randy were able to cover there, but when Garth brandished the baritone sax for the solo, Rick was reduced to emphatic "up" gestures with his thumb toward the soundboard in the back.

Things degenerated a little more on "It Makes No Difference", where Rick's vocals alternated between too low and so loud that the feedback had him swatting at the air. Here again Garth's soprano sax solo was muted way down, made even more glaring by the fact that he's supposed to play off Jim Weider's guitar solo, who's sound was pushed to Spinal Tap's proverbial 'eleven'.

Now don't get me wrong, the music was being played at the unbelievably excellent level one comes to expect from The Band. At this point the club is only five days old, so glitches are to be expected. But Levon was understandably irked by the sound system that's proudly promoted in the club's press release, and this was probably compounded by his frustration at not being able to sing in anything but a back-up capacity. Rick, Randy and Levon united their voices to do "Remedy" and "Back to Memphis", which musically they galloped through with a fervor that made these latter day tracks sound akin to material from the original Band incarnation.

But even Levon's voice is a nitpicking criticism in the midst of the raging party. They proved this by settling in to a sublime blues instrumental. I found this surprising, having seen the band over a dozen times in venues both large and small, I cannot recall them ever not doing a 'song'. Perhaps they were working out a few of the technical kinks, perhaps they were using it to give Rick's voice a rest since it was clearly going to be performing extra duty. Whatever the reason it was an impressive display of musical prowess and group chemistry.

Rick took all the lead vocal duties again for "The Weight", then they launched in to another jam as the call of "Eight minutes to midnight" went up. I saw people around me with champagne flutes and recalled that we were on the reserved table list, which included complimentary champagne, whether it was a glass or a whole bottle I wasn't sure. I dashed upstairs to the reserved table area and found a young bartender tentatively holding an expensive looking bottle, "I don't know how to do this," she confessed to me. "No problem," I replied and relieved her of the bottle. I opened it expertly (by pure luck), grabbed two glasses and made it back downstairs to join Robyn in the middle of the dance floor just as the countdown began.

We drank the bottle and danced while Amy Helm started singing "Willie and The Hand Jive". Then came more Band classics, "Life Is A Carnival", "Shape I'm In", "Don't Do It", "Chest Fever" -- I forget the exact song list and order but the frenzy they began never once slowed down. They finally announced a break and we went upstairs to get some food from the complimentary buffet. I had seen people with plates of all kinds of food, but all I could find left were trays of some kind of Franks and Beans concoction, which nevertheless went quite nicely with the champagne.

While we rested. The Band returned and I heard Rick begin the melodious new track, "Book Faded Brown", reminding me that this was supposed to be the live premiere of songs from the Jubilation album. Alas, this would be the only song heard from the new album. Rick retired for the night after this track. The rest of the gang stayed on stage and continued to play songs and jam. We were making our way back down to the dance floor when I turned to see Levon himself hustling down the stairs behind me. "Levon!" I yelled in drunken recognition, to which he smiled and extended his hand to me for a firm shake. "You're the best!" I exclaimed, confirming my inebriation once and for all. He listened from the audience for awhile before going back up on stage to play some harmonica on a blues jam. Then he retired too. Garth stayed on and even broke out the accordion for some Zydeco-style rhythm. They were still playing even as we left the club to run across the street to Ryan's (The best F---ing Irish pub in town! -- Their banner proclaims.) and had a couple more drinks. Then it was back across to Levon's to dance a little while longer before calling it a morning. Amy Helm was dancing around up front and she modestly accepted our congratulations.

Robyn had such a good time she wanted to go back! So back we were at Levon's two nights later for another terrific performance by The Band. They added yet another musician, Tom "Bones" Malone, (maitre 'd in the Blues Brothers movie) to the stage and performed essentially the same electrifying set with "Caledonia Mission", and "W.S. Walcott's Medicine show", thrown in for good measure. Levon's voice was still gone, but Amy handled his parts of The Weight magnificently, and the highlight may have been Marie Spinosa's vocals on an old blues standard that I think was called, "Can't Find My Way Home," (not the Cream song). The engineering was much crisper this time around. Still at the onset I could see Levon grumbling something to Rick, prompting Rick to shrug and reply "I can't hear S---."

Less rushed, more sober and therefore capable of taking in the surroundings of the club this time, I liked what I saw. Bars on each side of the dance floor above which hung black & white photography of old Blues Legends. A black and white photo flanked each side of the stage: one of Levon at the drum kit and one of Banu Gibson lining the other side. (She is a co-owner of the place and is performing there as constantly as Levon during January.) There were raised seating areas on the main floor at stage right and in the rear. The upstairs balcony (made of wood) offers two levels of seating and a bar that spans the full length of the back of the building. Wooden chairs, high stools with backrests, red-checkered tables -- everything simple, everything comfortable, everything classic. Levon's was a place truly about the music, which they advertise begins with Swing and Jazz bands at 1 p.m., and seems to go as long as there someone in the place willing to listen. Behind one small section of the bars they sell some t-shirts. There's no coat check, but in New Orleans you don't generally need a coat much less a place to put one. (Our trip was a notable exception…nighttime temperatures dropped in to the twenties.) However the guys at the t-shirt stand were happily holding coats for people who asked. There's not a tinge of neon tackiness in the place. If anything it's too understated. We nearly didn't see the sign on the outside of the place when we first approached -- lit only by street lamps, it's a wonderful little logo combining the American flag and two quarter notes joined on the staff.

The epilogue of our trip occurred while checking in at the airport. I spotted Garth Hudson and Marie Spinosa standing amid guitar cases in the area occupied by the airline opposite ours. I pointed them out to Robyn, who said I should ask them to have my picture taken with them. I was reluctant, as a policy I never want to approach any celebrity on their private time. "Well you're always telling me how nice they are to their fans," my girlfriend replied. This was true. Rick Danko once embraced a friend of mine in a bar merely for complimenting his show, and every account I've read has reinforced that friendly, "family" image. So I approached them and told them how "I was sorry to disturb them but I really enjoyed the shows." They were very gracious and explained that their flight home was canceled due to the bad weather, so they were just standing and waiting to see what could be done. Looking around I saw Aaron Hurwitz, and Mike Dunn, and soon Rick and Richard appeared.

They agreed to pose for a picture, Garth even moved us out to where the light might be better. Robyn shot the first photo, and Marie instantly suggested she take another, "just to make sure" it comes out. Then they shook both our hands and we went back to our line, happily losing three or four places.

Does this mean at the next Band show I'll be singled out for inside jokes and familiar conversation? Odds are against it. However along with the memory of a great trip, I have some great photos for the big oak bookcase in my living room.

-- Christopher Lenois

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