Levon Helm at the Borgatta Hotel & Casino, Atlantic City, New Jersey
Saturday, August 29, 2009
Levon Helm - From the Hawks to the Crows
When Levon Helm came to Somers Point in the spring of '65, he was the leader of Levon & the Hawks, having left rockabilly Ronnie Hawkins and settling into the Jersey Shore scene as the houseband at Tony Marts.
Now he's come back with the Crows, the Black Crows.
I thought Levon had top billing and the Black Crows were going to open for him, but I had it backwards, and Levon and friends opened for the Crows, who recently spent some time at Levon's studio barn in Woodstock, recording a new live double album, "Before the Frost...Until the Freeze," with a unique marketing approach.
[For more see Bobby D's interview with Crows drummer Steve Gorman
It was just as well because Levon wasn't singing (Doctor's orders), and it was easier for some of the Crows - Chris and Rich Robinson and Gorman, to sit in with Levon's band than to get a jam going later in the night. Since the casinos make the bands wind up early to get the people into the casino, the second show isn't always the longest or the best, as it usually is in a nightclub. So they had to pour it on all at once and fit it into a neat one hour set, and they did.
At some point early in the proceedings, it was announced that Levon wasn't going to sing, and Chris Robinson of the Crows came out and sang parts of a few songs, including "The Weight," which they took turns singing verses.
Levon should certainly get the Comeback of the Year Award, having survived lung cancer, he was knockin' on heaven's door the last time we saw him at the now defunct Bubba Mac Shack in Somers Point a few years ago (See Photo of Levon with Tony Marts T-Shirt). He had a good band with him then, and he was showcasing his daughter Amy, who has certainly matured into a real stage talent with a fine voice.
Then after beating the cancer, and getting his voice back, Levon cuts Dirt Farmer, which wins all kinds of awards, and puts his name in lights - solo, without the Hawks or The Band.
There were some familiar faces on stage however, besides Amy, especially guitarist Jim Weider,who played guitar with The Band when they played the first Tony Marts Reunion at Egos in the 1980s. Jim was on his honeymoon when he came to the Jersey Shore, and standing next to him on stage is Larry Campbell, who also produced "Dirt Farmer" and the recently released "Electric Dirt."
They also have a live 2 CD set of a live concert they did, which includes some classic Band tunes, "Ophelia," and a mandolyn playing Levon singing "Atlantic City."
While that song was a natural for this show, nobody else probably knew the words (as penned by Bruce Springsteen), but for the songs they did do, everybody seemed to pitch in and take over different vocal chores that are usually handled by Levon.
I mean Levon's voice gives impramatter to "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "The Weight" and the they're just different songs if sung by anybody else.
Besides Jim and Larry on guitars, and Amy singing, there's Larry's wife, who sings and plays acoustic guitar, and a boogie-woogie piano player with a Dr. John style, a four man horn section and a stand up base set up behind Levon's drums, on stage right, looking in, with the guitars up front.
They put the horns to work right away with the opening number, "The Shape I'm In," an old Band tune that sturs recognition, as does the somber "Long Black Vail," that Amy does so well, with dad on mandolyn, and letting the horns reign, each taking a solo. And Larry's wife gets to showcase her talent on guitar and vocals on "It Makes No Difference," complete with Rick Danko flashbacks, God bless him.
I thought they'd play a lot more new stuff that I wouldn't recognize, but even when they did I figured it out - "Deep Elm Blues," on which Jimmy shines on guitar, and a song that I happen to know something about, one that Steve Ray Vaughn would have known, since Elm Street in Dallas is just across the leve from his Oak Cliff neighborhood in Dallas. While in Dallas for a conference I asked a taxi driver to take me to "Deep Elm," which is a at the opposite end of town from Dealey Plaza, where the Texas School Book Depository is on Elm Street where it begins as a little ally bullets flew over in killing JFK. Deep Elm is an old red light neighborhood where there are still a number of bars with live bands - mainly blues and jazz, and that's what the "Deep Elm Blues" is about.
Where "Dirt Farmer" is mainly old country and folk songs that Levon grew up with in Arkansas, "Electric Dirt" has some unique renditions of some classic songs, like "Atlantic City" and "Deep Elm Blues." Then there's the interesting version of the Dead's "Tennessee Jed," that everybody recognizes and is on the new record.
Larry Campbell can sing too, as he does with a verse of "The Weight," and he really blew me away on "Chest Fever," which he takes from Band organist Garth Hudson, and makes it his own, playing Garth's brilliant and complicated introduction on lead guitar, note for note, he hits it, leading the rest of the band into one of their best numbers.
There's a line in "Chest Fever" that refers to the "Goons at the Dunes," which some locals to recall the burley bouncers at the old Dunes 'till Dawn nightclub, which was open all night with live music, on the Longport Blvd to Ocean City and Somers Point, a tidbit that I bet Larry Campbell doesn't know.
Eventually three of the Crows came out - Gorman and the Robinsons, making it a crowded stage, but they got into a grove and maintained it, for one hour.
While there was some concern about Levon's voice and the possibility of a relapse, Amy said that he will be singing again soon, though we'll have to track him down, and maybe even have to go to Woodstock to hear him sing in the barn.