A Barn-Raising Rocks a
Arena New Jersey
‘Love for Levon,’ Tribute to Helm at
Love for Levon Roger Waters waves a gift from Levon Helm, who died in April, at a show at the
in East Rutherford, N.J., on
By JON PARELES
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — It takes an arena concert to save a barn.
Collaborators and admirers of Levon Helm, who was the drummer for the Band, gathered on Wednesday at the
for a benefit concert, “Love
for Levon.” Izod
It was a night of gritty voices, twangy guitars and songs steeped in American traditions and tall tales: a kind of powwow for the rootsy, handmade styles now categorized together as
The concert, which will eventually be shown on AXS TV and released as a
DVD, raised money to keep
music going at Mr. Helm’s barn in Woodstock, N.Y.; he died in April.
The barn is a recording studio and, since 2005, the home of the Midnight Ramble, a concert series where the Levon Helm Band had been joined, through the years, by most of the musicians at the concert.
Even in an arena it was a cozy event. Dozens of luminaries from rock, soul and country — among them Gregg Allman, Jakob Dylan, Bruce Hornsby, Mavis Staples, John Prine, Joan Osborne, John Hiatt, Jorma Kaukonen and Ray La Montagne — were backed by the Levon Helm Band. It’s now led by the guitarist and fiddler Larry Campbell and, Mr. Campbell announced, renamed the Midnight Ramble Band. Fondly, fervently and with few displays of vanity, they sang Band songs and songs from Mr. Helm’s 2007 solo album, “Dirt Farmer” (including the Appalachian-style “Little Birds,” sung by Amy Helm, Mr. Helm’s daughter).
Most of the performers echoed the inflections of Mr. Helm’s singing, with its deep Southern memories in every unvarnished phrase. And at their foundation were the beats Mr. Helm had played: his amalgam of bedrock economy, R&B backbeat, military tattoo and jazzy variation. Sometimes it took two drummers to play them.
Garth Hudson, the Band’s keyboardist, sat in vigorously on a few songs, including a rendition of “Chest Fever” (sung by the country star Dierks Bentley) that he opened with a sly, darting Bach pastiche as an organ solo.
Robbie Robertson, the Band’s primary songwriter and other surviving member, did not appear. But his songs did, with their conundrums, gravity and humor.
Joe Walsh, though hardly the night’s most gifted singer, cackled through “Up on
with lascivious glee, then ramped up a racing, swooping guitar duel with the
steel guitarist Robert Randolph. Lucinda Williams captured the solitary anguish
of “Whispering Pines.” The Cripple Creek
songwriter Allen Toussaint sang “Life Is a Carnival” (written by Mr. Helm, Mr.
Robertson and Rick Danko), riding the horn-section arrangement the Band had
commissioned from Mr. Toussaint in the 1970s. Warren Haynes, from the Allman
Brothers Band, pushed “The Shape I’m In” further south with a stubbornly
leisurely slide guitar solo. New Orleans
But some of the concert’s best moments moved beyond homage. Grace Potter, accompanying herself on organ in a beautifully sparse arrangement, made Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” a pure, lonely hymn. The
band My Morning Jacket took the stage on its own, keeping the horn section, to
kick and stomp its way through “Ophelia.” Mr. Campbell sang the Grateful Dead’s
“Tennessee Jed” with John Mayer’s lead guitar teasing all around him. Kentucky
The country singer Eric Church seized “A Train Robbery,” a Paul Kennerley song from “Dirt Farmer,” and snarled through its depiction of Jesse James warning, “We will burn your train to cinders.” And Roger Waters — the non-American on the bill — gave another “Dirt Farmer” song, “
to Cross,” the kind of
stately, overwhelming crescendos he used in Pink Floyd. Mr. Waters had brought
a red baseball cap that Mr. Helm impulsively gave him in 1990, and it hung on a
microphone stand — a relic and down-home talisman — as the entire lineup
gathered to sing “The Weight,” belting its tales of comic woe like a family
[A version of this review appeared in print on
October 5, 2012, on
page C15 of the
edition with the headline: A Barn-Raising Rocks A New Jersey Arena.] New York
Jakob Dylan, Roger Waters Lead Sweet 'Love for Levon' Tribute to Levon Helm
All-star event celebrates the late, beloved Band drummer and songwriter
Levon Helm's musical legacy revealed itself to be in good hands on Wednesday night at Love for Levon, an open-hearted benefit concert for the family of the late singer-drummer of the Band. Packed with marquee musical names including Roger Waters and My Morning Jacket and intimate anecdotal sharing that belied the enormity of its space – the
Center – the collaborative evening of covers raised
funds to help Helm's family to retain ownership of his home and converted-barn
studio in New
Jersey . Woodstock, New York
Love for Levon also served as a financial and symbolic continuation of Helm's famous Midnight Rambles, the campfire-style jams he established in his studio for talented folk, country and rock musicians. Fittingly, the evening shared the affectionate give-and-take ethos that made the Rambles so legendary: egos were nonexistent, vocals readily shared, lengthy solos undemanded. The singer and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell served as the unofficial master of ceremonies; he led the Levon Helm Band, a revolving ensemble of 12-odd brass, keys, strings, and percussion players (now redubbed the Midnight Ramble Band, he noted), and introduced most of the plentiful guest stars.
Roger Waters and Jim James of My Morning Jacket perform during the Love for Levon Benefit at the
in East Rutherford, NJ. Izod
At Izod, the most rabid receptions seemed reserved for those who'd contributed to the Band's heyday, or at least held a direct connection to it: Garth Hudson, the Band's influential organist, received a standing ovation from much of the room as he pounded keys for "Little Birds" (from Helm's Grammy-winning 2007 solo album Dirt Farmer). He lingered and was accompanied by a beaming John Prine (dapper in a suit, and introduced as "a hero of Levon's") and the Levon Helm Band for the Band's seminal track "When I Paint My Masterpiece." Their heartfelt, drawling call-and-response soon found folksy kinship in surprise guest Jakob Dylan's raspy, fervent spin through "Ain't Got No Home," a Clarence "Frogman" Henry hellraiser that the Band covered. (Bobbing in his wide-brimmed hat, Dylan could almost duck the irony of delivering a song with the lyric "I ain't got no father," even though Bob wasn't present to support his late friend.)
Though the old guard of the Band collaborators delivered warmly talented moments, the younger Helm enthusiasts proved formidable as well. Lucinda Williams' keening vocals on "Whispering Pines" (one of Robbie Robertson's most beautiful songs for the Band) drew goosebumps, and Grace Potter's effortlessly controlled soar through "I Shall Be Released" tumbled steadily toward a devastating climax of vibrato and smashing piano. Afterward,
stared agape at her retreating form before marveling, "How about
that?" (Potter, for her part, maintained modesty by saying succinctly,
"This is one of the great pleasures of my life.") Campbell
Ray La Montagne and John Mayer delivered a beatifically understated "Tears of Rage" (by Bob Dylan and the Band). La Montagne maintained his gorgeous, reedy rasp while keeping his hands stuffed unassumedly in his pockets, and Mayer contributed modest rhythm parts and evaded all theatrics; he'd deliver those later in the virtuosic, largely instrumental barnstormer "Tennessee Jed." The country singer Eric Church offered an unexpectedly poignant highlight when he leant his solid twang to the Helm rarity "A Train Robbery," a song chock full of the heartland storytelling Helm excelled at ("We will burn your train to cinders so throw the money on down/ Open up your damned express car and jump down to the ground"). Church also covered the Band's "Get Up Jake" and spoke touchingly of his experience playing a Ramble, closing with the battle cry, "I've been told that I march to the beat of a different drummer, and I do – Levon Helm."
Larry Campbell and John Mayer perform during the Love for Levon Benefit at the
in East Rutherford, NJ. Izod Center
After a blazing, funk-laden "Up on
" by Joe Walsh and Robert Randolph, My
Morning Jacket lent ear-rattling, sax-heavy squalor to "Ophelia" and
"It Makes No Difference" before Roger Waters joined them onstage.
Perplexingly, he received no introduction; equally mysteriously, the smiling
Pink Floyd singer was clad in black yet toting a battered, bright red baseball
cap, which he hung immediately from his microphone stand. After he and MMJ
drove "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" into fine country-psych
lather, Waters explained his prop: Helm had given it to him after they performed
together in the historic "The Wall: Live in Berlin" concert after the
fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, and Waters vowed that he would keep it close
"until the day I die." He and Amy Helm (Levon's daughter and a
soulful, bluegrass-inflected singer in her own right) then delivered a lovely,
elegiac duet on " Cripple
to Cross." Wide River
By the cinematic ensemble closing of "The Weight," during which every performer of the night stuffed the stage, the room pulsed with familial goodwill. It was appropriately similar to the benevolent mood of The Last Waltz, the Band's spirited swan song – and with Waters' scarlet hat resting prominently on the central microphone, a spotlight lending it soft glow, the evening seemed far more a promise to Helm than a farewell to him.
Levon Helm's Loved Ones Honor His Legacy
Amy Helm , Barbara O'Brien , Elvis Costello , Larry Campbell , Levon Helm , Midnight Rambles , Robbie Robertson , The Band , The Last Waltz , Levon Helm Farm , Levon Helm Rambles , Entertainment News
Levon Helm, who died on April 19, experienced an astonishing career resurgence all due to a tight-knit inner circle, including his daughter Amy, his manager Barbara O'Brien, and guitarist Larry Campbell, who all rallied around to help the legend when he was broke and in danger of losing everything.
His redemptive third act began at a time when he was without a voice (from surgery to remove cancer from his throat), in bankruptcy, and deeply indebted to the bank which held the mortgage on his home.
But the million dollar question remains: how could a living legend, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, world renowned drummer, whose soulful southern twang lent credibility to such standards like "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and "Up on Cripple Creek," end up with nothing?
Helm's life after The Band split was checkered; there were periods of activity when he landed movie roles, playing Loretta Lynn's father in Coal Miner's Daughter and test pilot Jack Riddley in The Right Stuff.
He married Sandy Dodd in 1981 and continued to make great music, with Levon Helm and the
RCO All Stars
and his old friends The Cate Brothers. But a series of bad business decisions,
a fire in Helm's barn, and some personal setbacks followed.
The Band eventually reunited, toured, and recorded, sans Robertson, but their lack of financial success and being relegated to playing much smaller venues took its emotional toll on the group. Keyboardist and vocalist Richard Manuel, who had been battling personal demons, hanged himself in his hotel room after a show in
and when bassist and vocalist Rick Danko died in his sleep in 1999, The Band
ceased to exist. Winter Park, Florida
"I'm sure there were periods of darkness but I saw a positive guy all the time," said Happy Traum, a friend of Helm's and
neighbor since the late '60s. Woodstock
"He was just always striving to see the positive side of things. When his barn burned down he said, 'Well, we'll just build a better one'; When he got sick in '98 he said, 'Whatever life I got left I'll just build a better Levon'; That attitude was pretty amazing to me."
Helm managed to stay afloat but there were some very serious financial issues that weren't going to go away, and by the end of 2003 he was out of options. Then with his home in foreclosure, he made a phone call that would change his life.
Barbara O'Brien, the administrative assistant for the Ulster County Sheriff, was well aware of Levon Helm's bankruptcy and foreclosure troubles but she wasn't yet clear about what he wanted from her the day she spoke to Helm on the phone. Yet she gladly accepted his invitation to visit him.
O'Brien, 58, got to know Helm when she became active in local
holding various fundraisers benefiting military families. Helm was always the
first one to volunteer and provide music for events. Woodstock
"He had it in his mind that I was going to work there before I agreed to come over," laughed O'Brien who recalled the first time she went to Helm's studio.
"He literally walked me around in his unfinished basement with a flashlight saying, 'We'll put your desk there, put a phone here, a computer.' I had absolutely no idea about what he wanted me to do. On the other hand, I couldn't bear the thought of him getting kicked out because he couldn't pay his bills.
One of the first things she did was help Helm organize the first rent parties in 2004, live shows in his three-story barn's studio so he could begin paying off his debts. She also helped him consolidate all of his bills, and stave off the vultures from the bank.
They began calling the rent party performances, "The Midnight Ramble" after the tent shows he enjoyed as a kid.
With O'Brien's help he could finally organize his life in a way to bring in money and build a business around the Rambles.
The next step was building a band, a task which fell into the hands of multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell.
"As soon as I left Bob Dylan's band in 2004, Levon called me and said, "Come up and let's make some music,'
told us. Campbell
"All he wanted to do was make good music and have a good time doing it, with no other agenda involved. If we made some money, great -- and certainly starting these Rambles was an attempt to get himself out of debt -- but the means to that end was only about playing music you enjoyed playing.
A list of people that Helm really admired in the industry wound up playing the Rambles: Allen Toussaint, Kris Kristofferson, Hubert Sumlin, Charlie Louvin, John Hiatt, Robbie Dupree, Ralph Stanley, Mavis Staples, Elvis Costello, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, and many more.
He recorded Dirt Farmer in 2007, followed by Electric Dirt in 2009, and then Ramble at the Ryman in 2012. All three recordings won Grammys.
On Saturday, March 31, Levon Helm meandered, in his own perfect rhythm, onto a stage for the very last time to play a Ramble. He complained earlier that night of a serious headache and backache but didn't want to disappoint his old friends in Los Lobos who were co-headlining that night.
Tony LoBue, Helm's Ramble manager and web developer, shared his recollections about the last show.
"So, he played and when we got in the house afterward he said to me, 'Tony, I wasn't on my game tonight. I just couldn't do it. It hurt.'"
Helm checked into the hospital soon after.
Before he died on
19, 2012 Helm gave specific instructions from his hospital bed to
Amy, Campbell, and O'Brien to carry on the tradition of the Ramble. His exact
words were, "Keep it goin."
"He's gone, we miss him, and we wish he was back," said
"But we all realized how wonderful this thing was and what a shame it would be to let it dissipate and it's certainly what we got from his spirit. But we own it now. We're as qualified to do this as we ever were because we've absorbed the magic that Levon gave us."
"He was just the happiest guy the last years of his life because he was getting accolades from fans, respect from his fellow musicians and very fulfilling musical output," Traum said.
"Also, his very positive association with his daughter Amy -- that was such a strong and palpably fulfilling thing for him. To see him onstage with her singing you could just see the pride in his eyes."
In addition to putting on more Rambles, the eventual goal is to secure the property ($900,000 still left to pay on the mortgage) and develop it into a music center, a place where children could receive musical instruction, where musicians could interact with other musicians, and attend workshops and master classes.
"I think there's an incredible joy in trying to live up to my father's musical legacy, for me and a lot of other musicians," said Amy who is now on tour to promote her debut her solo album.
"He set a high mark of having a relentless joy and passion and just pure groove and spirit in his musicianship and I think that's what people responded to in him, and living up to that. I try to emulate and aim for that in my own music.
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Stars honor Levon Helm at 'Love for Levon' concert
John Mayer, My Morning Jacket and Roger Waters were among the musicians who came together last night to honor the late Levon Helm for the “Love for Levon” concert. Held at the
Center , fans came to pay tribute to The Band singer
and drummer, who passed away from throat cancer this year at 71. New
The concert was held to raise money to help Helm’s family keep their
echoed the collaborative spirit of Helm’s famed Midnight Rambles, the concerts
he hosted at his home studio with fellow veteran musicians. Woodstock
According to Rolling Stone, songs performed at “Love for Levon” included Mayer and Ray LaMontagne's take on “Tears of Rage” (a track by Bob Dylan and The Band), Joe Walsh and Robert Randolph's rendition of the The Band classic, “Up on Cripple Creek," and Pink Floyd singer/bassist Waters teaming up with My Morning Jacket to perform “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” another The Band hit.
also dueted with Helm’s daughter Amy on “ Rogers to Cross.” Wide
The concert wrapped with all of the night’s performers -- which also included surprise guests Jakob Dylan, Mavis Staples, Lucinda Williams and Band organist Garth Hudson -- gathering for a spirited performance of The Band’s most famous song, “The Weight.”
Photo: Mavis Staples, Joe Walsh and Roger Waters perform at the Love for Levon benefit concert.
Musicians honor Helm at benefit concert
Proceeds aim to keep Rambles alive
By Steve Israel
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — No wonder they called it "Love for Levon."
Even before Warren Haynes kicked off the benefit concert to save the late Levon Helm's home/studio in
with the old Band tune "Shape I'm In," and before Roger Waters and My
Morning Jacket teamed up on "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,"
stars like Joe Walsh, Jakob Dylan and Bruce Hornsby gathered backstage to sing
Helm's praises. Woodstock
For these stars and others, like Joan Osborne, Jorma Kaukonen and Grace Potter, gathered at the Izod Center, the late singer and drummer of The Band wasn't just about his earthen voice and in-the-pocket drumming.
Helm was a one-of-a-kind, salt-of-the-earth musician, "who tapped into the best of American music," said concert producer Don Was, "the best soul music, the best gospel music, the best rock 'n' roll."
"He showed the way to do it: with class, with grace, with integrity," said Walsh, who once teamed with Helm in Ringo Starr's All-Starr Band, and joined Robert Randolph Wednesday night in a sizzling version of The Band's "Up on Cripple Creek."
"He was really generous to us when we were trying to break in," said Dylan, whose father, Bob, played with The Band when they all lived in
1960s. "One of my big regrets was that I never got to play a () Ramble." Woodstock
Dylan — who played a raucous version of the old Woody Guthrie tune, done by The Band and his father, "Ain't Got No Home," was one of the many musicians who mentioned the Midnight Ramble, the intimate concerts Helm hosted most weekends at his woodsy studio that attracted many of the stars who played the benefit. The proceeds of Wednesday's concert, which drew about 15,000, will go toward keeping those rambles going, one of Helm's last wishes.
"It was such an incredible feeling of community," said Hornsby, who played two rambles and joined the Levon Helm Band, led by Larry Campbell and featuring Levon's daughter, Amy, on a Helm favorite, "Anna Lee." You could feel that sense of community, even in the cavernous
which is about as far removed — in size — from Helm's home as possible. Izod Center
After all, it was only a musician as generous and talented as Helm — a man with "a smile that seeped from his mouth on through to his body," said Mike Gordon of the band Phish, who could bring musicians as diverse as Waters of Pink Floyd, John Mayer, Mavis Staples and more than two-dozen other musical fans and friends of Helm on the tune that closed the rambles and this remarkable evening, "The Weight."
Levon Helm is gone, but his backbeat is still echoing. Wherever rock music and storytelling mix, chances are there’s a disciple of the late Band member on the drum stool.
"The foundation of Levon’s greatness as a drummer is that he was a great musician overall," says Joe Walsh. "He could see the message of the song. He was aware of what the lead vocalist was doing and what the other musicians were doing, and based on all of that, he’d come up with a drum part. He’d put the drums in special places, he never overplayed, and he never stepped on anybody."
"As long as I can remember, he’s been one of my rock heroes, and his music can’t be exhausted," says concert producer Keith Wortman. "I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t listen to the Band or something from one of Levon Helm’s solo albums. They’re that great."
Thousands of musicians and passionate fans feel the way. But Wortman has the means to put his appreciation of Helm, who died of throat cancer in April at 71, into action.
Along with the Helm family and his creative partner — producer and bassist Don Was — he’s throwing a party in the Meadowlands, and inviting some of Helm’s famous friends to sing and play.Love for Levon, taking place at the
on Wednesday, is more than a
procession of stars: It’s a testament to Helm’s broad appeal. Izod
Folk-influenced modern rock acts (My Morning Jacket, Ray LaMontagne), classic rockers (Gregg Allman, Jorma Kaukonen), country hit-makers (Eric Church, Dierks Bentley) and others will gather to express their appreciation. Was and longtime Helm collaborator Larry Campbell are the musical directors, and have recruited veteran drummer Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp, Melissa Etheridge, John Fogerty) to hit the skins for the house band.
Montclair-raised Walsh, a longtime friend of Helm’s, was eager to participate.
"I called Levon’s wife when I heard that this was coming together," says Walsh, who will sing "Up on
" at the concert. "I always knew that Levon
Helm would do anything for me, and he was such a great guy that it went both
Early this week, Love for Levon netted another big fish: Roger Waters, formerly of Pink Floyd. Water had never met Wortman, who produced a similar tribute to Johnny Cash earlier this year. But Helm, who played at the 1990
staging of Pink Floyd’s "The Wall," was a friend of Waters’. Through
a mutual friend, Waters let Wortman know that his passion for Helm’s work was
intense, and he wanted to help. Berlin
"Everybody wanted to do it," says Wortman. "We sat down and put a wish list together for the artists we wanted to get involved, and every time we made a call, it was, ‘Wow, anything for Levon Helm.’ "
Band organist Garth Hudson will make an appearance, and the show promises surprise guests, too. But Wortman wouldn’t say if Robbie Robertson — the other surviving member of the Band — will participate. Helm’s relationship with Robertson was famously strained: for decades, Helm blamed Robertson for tearing the Band apart. Helm even refused to play with him at the Band’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Yet earlier this year, Robertson visited the ailing Helm and attempted reconciliation.
Robertson was the Band’s great lyricist, but it was Helm, the only American in a group of Canadians, who brought those stories to life. Instead of driving the backbeat or pushing into psychedelic netherworlds as his contemporaries did, Helm favored slow shuffles and imaginative half-time rhythms that gave the group’s singers (including himself) plenty of expressive latitude. His playing lent dignity and authority to Robertson’s tales.
In addition to being one of rock’s first singing drummers, Helm was the Band’s most distinctive vocalist. He gave voice to the weary Confederate soldier in "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," howled out "Ophelia" and put the soul into "The Weight."
"When (the Band’s 1968 debut album) ‘Music From Big Pink’ came out, we all studied it," says Walsh, who remembers driving from
in a snowstorm to catch the Band live. "Besides how great those songs
were, it was also a study in band chemistry. The feel that they had when they played
together was something that everybody wanted." Cleveland
Those songs assured Helm’s legendary status. But when he was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, he found himself, as many sick professional musicians do, without enough money to pay his medical bills. Instead of sacrificing his
barn, which housed a studio for the Helm family (his daughter Amy is a
musician, too), he threw open the doors. Woodstock, N.Y.
The barn’s Midnight Rambles began as fundraisers, but quickly grew into attractions in their own right. Musicians who felt Helm’s influence made the trip to sit in with him at loose, joyful shows that often had the feel of a jam session. Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Rickie Lee Jones, Kris Kristofferson and many other stars sang at the Rambles. Those who attended them say the experience was unforgettable.
"I’ve been an avid attendee," says Wortman. "It’s the most intimate, direct connection to Levon and his music that you can ever hope to get. The first time I went, I remember leaving and saying to myself, ‘That was the best live music experience I’ve ever had in my life.’ And then the next time I went, I thought the same."
The Love for Levon concert, too, is a benefit for the barn and an attempt to keep the Midnight Rambles going. Many of the performers are Ramble veterans, and possessors of the spirit of the concert series. "It won’t have a Ramble-type atmosphere, not exactly," says Wortman. "But that sense of camaraderie and people sitting in with each other, that’ll be there."
"The combinations of musicians onstage — that’s what’s going to bring the magic," says Walsh. "This is a group of players who don’t normally get the chance to make music together. But we’re all going to be there, and as far as I’m concerned, Levon is going to be there, too."
Wortman and Was chose a medium-sized venue — the Moody Theatre in
— for the Cash
tribute. Love for Levon quickly grew so large it had to be at an arena. Austin
"It’s a perfect place for a multi-artist show — plenty of dressing rooms backstage, plenty of parking," says Wortman. "And Levon Helm had a long history with
He played the Wellmont (in New Jersey )
and the Count Basie (in Red Bank). As much as Montclair
was Levon’s address, the whole tri-state area was his adopted home." Woodstock
Tris McCall: email@example.com, Twitter: @TrisMcCall
Love for Levon
Who: Garth Hudson, Roger Waters, Gregg Allman, John Mayer, Joe Walsh, Lucinda Williams, Mavis Staples, David Bromberg, My Morning Jacket, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Bruce Hornsby, Ray LaMontagne, John Hiatt, Grace Potter, Warren Haynes, Allen Toussaint, Robert Randolph, John Prine, Jorma Kaukonen, Marc Cohn, the Levon Helm Band