It was a night that Canadian fans of 70-year-old rock and roll legend Levon Helm had been hoping to see for a long time: the former Band drummer/vocalist’s return to Toronto after winning a battle with throat cancer and re-establishing himself as one of the seminal Americana artists with his recent Grammy-winning albums Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt.
The Arkansas-born Helm clearly shared the sold-out crowd’s anticipation at being back in the city where he spent a large portion of his formative musical years in the early 1960s. Clean-shaven and spry, Helm reflected the audience’s love and enthusiasm throughout the 90-minute performance with a beaming smile, and genuine expressions of joy at bringing his long-running Midnight Ramble – a weekly concert series at his home studio in Woodstock, NY – to what he acknowledged was his “second home.”
Helm had good reason to be in a joyous mood. His ten-piece band, anchored by peerless multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, Helm’s daughter Amy on vocals, and a five-piece horn section, effortlessly channeled the many strains of American music – blues, country, gospel, New Orleans r&b – that have formed the foundation of Helm’s sound from the beginning.
It all revolves around his unique rhythmic sense, and few drummers are in the same league as Helm in terms of commanding a stage. That was evident in the show’s pacing as well; nearly every member of the ensemble shared lead vocals with Helm, an indication of the toll that the cancer treatment took on his voice, but also a strong reminder of how The Band had originally pioneered the “no leader” approach that so many other groups attempt to employ today.
While it was invigorating to hear Helm tear through classics like “Ophelia,” and pick up the mandolin for a rollicking “Deep Ellum Blues,” it was equally compelling to hear Amy and fellow vocalist Teresa Williams put a new spin on songs like “It Makes No Difference” and “All La Glory,” the latter a nice choice for Band die-hards. But on the instrumental side, not enough can be said about the contributions of both Campbell and keyboardist Brian Mitchell.
Mitchell deftly captured the Richard Manuel/Garth Hudson twin keyboard dynamic of The Band on his own, and provided one of the evening’s highlights with his rendition of Dr. John’s “Mardi Gras Day,” accentuated by the horn section briefly leaving its post at the rear of the stage for what almost seemed like a spontaneous parade out front.
Campbell was equally solid, and certainly raised a few eyebrows toward the end of the set when he faithfully recreated Hudson’s famous organ introduction to “Chest Fever” on guitar. The show culminated, not unexpectedly, with The Band’s most enduring song, “The Weight,” for which opener John Hiatt was invited to join the group, followed by a lone encore of “I Shall Be Released.” It was a nod to The Band’s legacy, but the performance overall would not have suffered through the omission of these numbers.
With this current group of musicians, Helm appears able to express himself in any style he wishes to pursue, and judging from the crowd’s eagerness to defy Massey Hall’s stodgy atmosphere by dancing, he cannot go wrong with anything he wants to do at the moment.
(photo by Wendy Rofihe)