Levon Helm at the Philly Waterfront - Friday, June 20, 2008
Opening for Phil Lesh of the Greatful Dead, there were a lot of old hippies and Dylan Freeks arriving early (5:30pm) to see Levon Helm and his hot band play the outdoor, open festival venue on the Delaware River waterfront.
This is the second Philly show for Levon this year, as he appeared earlier at the Electric Factory, a well received show that got great reviews and was even attended by EFC co-founder Larry Magid. Around the same time he did a radio show with David Dye on WPEN's World Cafe Live, but instead of Levon playing at the local studio cafe, David went to Woodstock and recorded the interview and show at Levon's barn. I'll check to see if there's a link to both.
Thinking this show was at Penn's Landing, where I'd seen Mike Pedicin, Jr. play with Dave Brubeck many years ago, I parked near 2nd and Front Streets, where I checked in to the Kyper Pass for a cold one and get my bearings. There was on New York guy also in for the show, but he was a Deadhead here to see Lesh, while I was there to see Levon.
Walking around the corner to Tiny Bubbles?, I talked to the manager there and confirmed that the owners had sold Mac's in Somers Point, but to who remains a mystery.
Lucky I had on my Chucks, as the new outdoor concert venue is on the other side of the Ben Franklyn Bridge, about a mile away, but the hike was worth, it as I passed Elfrith's Alley, where I hadn't been since I was a kid, and learned about a few neat, new bookstores.
At the scene of the show I remembered why I stopped going to festivals and major entertainment events - lines. There was a line down the block, and they hadn't opened the gates and it was almost five o'clock, and showtime is at five thirty?
I went over to Cavanagh's next door, run by the same family who owns a few other Cavanagh bars near UP and 30th Street station, but this one is almost all one big deck. It might even be the joint that colapsed into the river a few years back since the pilings go out pretty far.
They opened the gates and from Cavanagh's deck I could see the lines get smaller so I went over and got my $40 ticket, and then stood in another line to get frisked by security. After a brisk tour of the perimiter, lined with concession stands ($8 Philly Cheesesteaks, $3.50 waterice) I checked out this hugh, air conditioned tent, like the Eagle's practice facility, where they had a bar and a dj playing tunes, none of which I recognized.
The stage is huge, and faces the river, where equally huge cargo ships pass by, occassionally blowing their fog horns.
The thing about Festival Seating is there is no seats, except a few VIP tents that you have to upgrade your ticket to have access to.
While it looked like fun, sitting on blankets on a concrete lot in front of the stage, I went off to the side and sat on a gardrail in the shade.
Levon and the band came onstage about 5:45, Levon sat down at the drums on stage right, in front of the baby grand piano, and began playing drums and singing strong right away, though I didn't recognize the first two tunes, heavy on the horns. Levon is back all right, steady drums and strong voice.
"Ophelia" was the first of the old Band songs and it got quick recognition. "Ophelia, where have you gone?"
Levon introduced blues harpist Little Sammy Davis, who plays on some of the Midnight Ramblin' sessions, and fit him into the songs nicely.
Playing a few songs off the new, Grammy Award award winning Dirt Farmer, Levon switched between drums and a playing mandolyn on a stool and singing "Got Me A Women," next to his daughter Amy, who also took over some of the vocal chores and hit them all strong.
Do you think he has a good band? After all these years, the one time Ring Star's All Star drummer could have his pick of all stars, and he bring in some ringers, and gives them all an opportunity to shine. First off he brought in the fiddle and acordian, which set a bluegrass feeling.
This continued with "Long Black Veil" ballad, sung by Amy.
While a lot of the young Deadheads didn't exactly understand what was happening, "Who is that again?" they started to get it when they played "Rag, Mama, Rag," and a few other recognizable songs and people started dancing up front and along the fringes.
Of course, "The Weight" is the standout song that they do a unique rendition of, a jazzy version, heavy on the horns during the refain, but only the drums, bass and keys when he's singing, and featuring blues and jazz riffs by the now renown Mr. Davis, on harp, and the sax man, each laying it on just right and taking a great song and making it different. God bless them.
And that was it, thirteen songs, some obscure, some from the new album, and a few old classics, just the right mix, and a fine setup for Phil and Friends, who I'm sure played well into the night.
If Levon was the featured attraction, I'm sure he would have come out for an encore, but opening for Phil gives him the thirteen songs and out. I'd like to hear Levon headline, and let a Deadhead spin off band open for him.
While the festival setting worked for awhile, you do get tired of standing and dancing and need a place to sit down once in awhile.
I saw a couple of guys taking pictures and gave them my email address, so I might have some photos of the show to post in a few days, if I can figure out how to post pix.
The Woodstock flashbacks were starting to come with more frequency when I had the realization that I hadn't met one single person that I knew, as usually there's always this small clique of real music buffs who make all the big shows, and just as I was about to jott down that tidbit in my notes, I heard a familiar voice, "Look at that old hippie."
It's Timmy Todd, a Mirror Lake neighbor, and confirmed Deadhead, who missed Levon all together but would catch the main attraction.
And whatever I missed I'm sure I'll get the low down from Tim at JC's tomorrow.
Before leaving town I drove up Walnut and back South Street, looking for Boston Rick's bar, but can't find it, and drive by Jimmy's Steaks, but alas, there was a line to get in and no where to park.
So it's back home, to file this erstwhile report, just hours after the show.
And here's a bonus free link to Levon at Woodstock on World Cafe Live.
Beyond The Band with the Blues:
And here's a review of the EFC show by Ryan Cormier:
That's it from Philly,
BK over an out.
Here's Ryan's Review, but check out his music column, from DelawareOnLine:
Less than a week after winning a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album and beating out Wilmington's David Bromberg in the process, Levon Helm made his return to Philadelphia this weekend to complete his improbable comeback.
The 67-year-old's struggles have been well documented.
The legendary drummer for The Band was diagnosed with cancer of his vocal chord in 1996, which is the same year he last performed at the Electric Factory, joining The Band's Rick Danko and Garth Hudson for a pseudo-Band reunion.
The tumor was removed, he withstood untold waves of radiation and in 2004, when his voice began to return, he sang again at his beloved "Midnight Ramble" sessions in his studio/barn at his Woodstock, N.Y. home.
The voice that fans thought had forever been silenced was back.
On "Dirt Farmer," which snagged him the Grammy, Helm's voice is surprisingly strong, but not quite back to it's old form.
And on Friday night at the Electric Factory, where fans watched as Helm blew his nose in between nearly every song leaving a trail of used issues across the stage, his voice was clearly strained, probably due to a cold.
But there was no way he would cancel his return to Philadelphia. With an endless smile on his face, Helm enjoyed the adulation of the jubilant crowd. In between each song, people yelled that they loved him. He would respond in kind or by giving a thumbs up.
As one ecstatic fan told me, unsolicited, "We're lucky. He might not be here in 10 years. We're lucky to be here with him tonight."
The show was not a celebration of his Grammy-winning album nor was it a heavy-handed resurrection of The Band's hits.
Instead, Helm and his 8-piece band, which included four musicians on horns, celebrated American music, giving fans a guided tour of Americana from the only member of The Band that was actually born in the United States.
Helm and his band, which featured former Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell and Jimmy Vivino, who normally is seen every night playing guitar with the Max Weinberg 7 on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," jumped from jazz and dixieland and zydeco to country and blues and rock with ease.
In addition to Helm, five others sang lead vocals throughout the nearly 2-1/2 hour show, which included covers like "Forty Days & Forty Nights," by Muddy Waters, "I Ain't Got No Home," by Woody Guthrie from The Band's "Moondog Matinee" album, Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" and "Long Black Veil," which The Band recorded for "Music from Big Pink," but was originally recorded by country legend Lefty Frizzell.
Only a few songs off "Dirt Farmer" made it onto the set, including the playful, "Got Me A Woman," in which Helm sang that he and his "pretty good woman" live with a monkey and Chinese acrobats. For "Got Me A Woman," Helm left his drum kit and sat center stage playing the mandolin, which he repeated for several songs.
Aside from The Band's songs that made up the bulk of the second half of the show, one of the highlight's of the night came when Helm, one of Dylan's first drummers, and Campbell, one of Dylan's most versatile sidemen, paid tribute by performing a jazzy "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry," a song that Bromberg also recorded for his Grammy-nominated album, "Try Me One More Time."
While the crowd devoured every moment with Helm and his all-star band, the reaction to the songs of The Band was thunderous. Earlier in the show, Helm sang "Ophelia," the first of The Band's songs to fill the Electric Factory, which began celebrating its 40th anniversary with the Helm show.
Later in the night, "Rag Mama Rag" had the near-sellout crowd dancing, but it was the final stretch of the concert where The Band's songs truly came alive once again.
"The Shape I'm In" sung by Brian Mitchell on piano was followed by "Tears of Rage" off "The Basement Tapes" sung by Vivino. Then came an extended "Chest Fever," with Campbell on lead vocals and updating the song's introduction with a searing guitar solo. All the while, Helm slammed away on his drum set.
Sure, his voice may have taken hit by his medical problems, but his drumming skills have not.
As the band began to walk off stage, Helm stopped everyone, twirled his finger in the air and sat back down behind his kit. The band launched into "The Weight," which turned into a sing-a-long with the audience, a perfect way to close his return to Philadelphia that, frankly, no one was sure we'd ever see.
Even though Helm was clearly under the weather, Helm never let on, smiling throughout the night and singing as hard as he could. And the crowd knew it. But he didn't need any sympathy. This was a celebration of his life and his music with his fans, who are like family to him, as he invites them to is Woodstock home for those legendary "Midnight Ramble" shows.
But there was one thing missing Saturday. Helm's daughter, Amy, a member of his band and singer with the night's opener Ollabelle, was not in Philadelphia. She was home because she had given birth to Levon's grandson less than a week earlier.
It was Amy who went with Levon to all 28 radiation treatments. It was Amy who was by his side when he first realized he had totally lost his voice. And it was Amy who, on the eve of his Grammy win, named her newborn son Levon, after her father and one of America's musical treasures.
Levon Helm is not gone and Friday night proved he will never be forgotten.