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Ramble on the Road

Levon Helm and Lucinda Williams at Massey Hall

We enjoyed a serious dose of Americana at Massey Hall last night. Lucinda Williams stepped onstage shortly after 8:00 with 3-piece outfit that came ready to rock. Ms. Williams was in fine form as she treated the audience to a generous selection from her extensive catalogue, including a handful of tunes from her latest effort, Blessed, as well as old favourites like Blue and Joy and the more recent Honeybee. Lucinda’s set alone was worth the ticket price, as she played for over an hour, but the show was just beginning.

After the intermission, Toronto radio stalwart and 40-year friend of Levon Helm, John Donabie, walked onstage to introduce Levon and his band. To me ,Levon Helm is a musical giant. I grew up loving The Band, and of course Helm lived and played here in Toronto for several years as drummer for Ronnie Hawkins’ group The Hawks, before Bob Dylan and the big time came along. After a nasty bout with cancer, Helm returned to the music scene in 2007 with Dirt Farmer, a fantastic effort that I highly recommend. This was quickly followed by Electric Dirt. These recordings were produced by Larry Campbell, who leads the Levon Helm band today.

Levon Helm brought a 12-piece band to Massey Hall, including a 5-man horn section, a stand up bass, Brian Mitchell on B3, keyboards and accordion, Larry Campbell on guitar and fiddle, Jim Weider on guitar, Teresa Williams and Amy Helm singing and playing guitars and mandolin, and Helm himself on drums and mandolin. Helm was nursing a cold and his voice was in rough shape, but with the ensemble nature of the Levon Helm Band, it hardly mattered. All members of the band had on opportunity to be featured and they did a great job.

Helm is 70 now but he clearly loves being on stage and is enjoying the recent success of his recordings. The Levon Helm band raises the bar very high for other performers. It can’t be easy to take a 12-piece outfit on the road. Not many bands lug a B3 with Leslie around these days. These guys even had a tuba. They cover a lot of roots music ground in one show, from Band classics to gospel to New Orleans swing.

Lucinda joined Helm on stage for two songs. She fits in perfectly well with this band and I would have loved to see her play with them even more. This was a very very generous show. It was almost midnight when the group left the stage. A great time!

For anyone out there who’s just visiting the planet and hasn’t heard Levon Helm, here’s a taste..

And here’s the Levon Helm band on Letterman…

3 Comments

  1. Sounds like an absolutely fantastic show! You certainly got your money’s worth out of those tickets. I love when the opener comes back to play with the headliner, as I have seen some really beautiful moments arise out of those collaborations, that put me in mind of the magic that you sometimes see and hear at a folk festival workshop.

    Lovely review!

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