EmptyBeacon Theater, New York City
Friday, March 7
It ended well before the witching hour and it wasn't in a barn, but Levon Helm brought one of his famed "Midnight Rambles" to New York's Beacon Theater on Friday night. Fresh from his Grammy win for "Dirt Farmer," his first solo album in decades, the former member of the Band delivered a thrilling show of classic American music that demonstrated his continuing artistic and physical vitality.
The latter is no small achievement, considering that throat cancer robbed him of his voice for several years. Although his voice is thinner and reedier than it used to be and his aged visage now resembles a vintage photograph of a Depression-era farmer, Helms looked and sounded robust. Grinning wildly throughout the course of a set that lasted nearly two-and-a-half hours, he even had enough energy at the show's end to perform jumping jacks while receiving his ovations.
His large band, including the superb guitarists Jimmy Vivino and Larry Campbell and a dynamic five-piece horn section, was anchored by his deceptively simple but unerringly perfect drumming. A sterling group of vocalists and musicians wandered in frequently, including singer Teresa Williams, delivering gorgeous harmonies on "Long Black Veil"; harmonica player Little Sammy Davis, providing bluesy support on numbers like "Baby Won't You Please Come Home"; and special guest star Phoebe Snow, who sang lead on a slowed-down, soulful version of the rock classic "Tossing and Turning" and a transcendent "Into the Mystic." (Helm's daughter, Amy, normally a regular, was a no-show, but for a very good reason: She's recently given birth to a son, named Levon.)
The set list, including several tracks from the new album, encompassed folk, gospel, country, blues and nearly every other traditional American style imaginable. Helm, occasionally switching to mandolin, handled lead vocals on numerous songs, his voice still registering with a unique, rough-hewn timbre and distinctive character.
The show, which included such Band classics as "Ophelia" and "Rag Mama Rag," closed with two numbers that brought the cheering crowed to their feet: "I Shall Be Released" and, of course, "The Weight."