Americana royalty salutes Levon Helm
The Band deserves as much credit as anyone for inventing the country-rock subgenre we now know as Americana, so it made sense that this year’s Americana Music Association conference kicked off Wednesday night here in Nashville with a tribute to The Band’s drummer/singer Levon Helm.
[Above: Levon Helm, Buddy Miller and Sheryl Crow]
At age 68, Helm is a spry silver fox. He can still play, though at least once he seemed to beat on the ride cymbal as though it insulted his mother. And he can still sing, though his voice is squawky. But with Helm—and with Americana music in general—the imperfections are part of the charm. And the guest of honor received assistance on stage at the Ryman Auditorium from a long list of admirers and disciples: Steve Earle, Sheryl Crow, Delbert McClinton, Buddy Miller, Sam Bush, Little Sammy Davis, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant.
Wearing a blue button-down shirt tucked into dark slacks, Helm opened the show with “Ophelia,” an old Band chestnut, in an arrangement filled out by a nimble four-piece horn section. The rest of the setlist bounced around—it included material from Helm’s 2007 album Dirt Farmer (“Wide River To Cross”) and from The Band’s catalog (“The Weight”) and from the roots music standards songbook (“No Depression,” “Sitting On Top Of The World”). Krauss and Plant performed the Leadbelly song (“In The Pines”) that Nirvana re-christened as “Where Did You Sleep Last Night” on its Unplugged album. The show had a couple moments of unintentional comedy—McClinton was announced as “one of the most soulful men to come out of this country,” and Krauss and Plant sported strikingly similar haircuts—but the overall vibe was warm and reverent.
[Above: Theresa Williams, Delbert McClinton, Sam Bush, Amy Helm, Larry Campbell, John Hiatt, Steve Earle, Allison Moorer, Sheryl Crow, Buddy Miller, Billy Bob Thornton and Levon Helm]
The on-stage lineup rotated throughout the night, with Helm taking turns on mandolin and two other people filling in on drums. By my count, the lineup never got smaller than four people. And at the very end—for an encore of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”—it swelled to 20 sidemen, plus trusty ol’ Levon.