Levon Helm Band | 06.28.07 | NYC

Words by: Rich Lieberman :: Images by: Allison Murphy

Levon Helm Band :: 06.28.07 :: SummerStage :: New York, NY

Levon Helm :: 06.28 :: NYC
For many New Yorkers, the heat of summer brings the promise of great concerts in the urban oasis that is Central Park. The Park holds something for everybody, and for music enthusiasts each summer offers a rich assortment of live music. SummerStage at Rumsey Playfield has been offering up a diverse lineup of concerts since opening in 1986.

The forecast called for heavy thunderstorms, but that couldn’t keep fans away from Central Park for legendary music icon and founding member of The Band, Levon Helm and his all-star band. On this special night, Helm’s constant ear-to-ear smile was contagious as the rain fell. The wet, mainly older crowd sang along nostalgically with one of the most recognizable voices from the soundtrack of their youth.

It was a great privilege to witness Helm playing his drums and mandolin again, singing the verses from such classics as “Rag Mama Rag,” “Ophelia” and “The Weight.” The joy in watching Helm perform was not only due to his incredible catalog of music, but because Helm has been on the comeback trail. Helm is a survivor of throat cancer, which plagued him in 1996 and threatened to put an end to his career.

Levon Helm :: 06.28 :: NYC
Helm, with the help of an incredible group of family and friends, kept the music alive and thriving with intimate weekly gatherings known as the “Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Sessions” held at his Woodstock home studio, a barn in Upstate New York. It was at these weekly freeform jams friends like Dr. John, Elvis Costello, Steely Dan‘s Donald Fagen and many others gathered to jam. Helm just drummed in the beginning, then gradually started to sing again.

It was with a gentle push from friends and regular Midnight Ramble guitarists Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Phil Lesh & Friends), and Jimmy Vivino (Max Weinberg 7, The Fab Faux) that Helm was finally convinced to bring the Ramble to NYC for two sold out shows at the Beacon Theatre this past March. It was a huge success. It proved to Helm that he was indeed back and ready to “Ramble” in front of a large audience.

Williams, Campbell & Amy Helm
06.28 :: NYC
At SummerStage, the setlist was filled with lots of rock, blues and folk, delivered fresh by a fantastic band. The opening song could not be more appropriate as the 67-year old Helm broke into “I Don’t Want To Hang Up My Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes.”

Helm’s band was anchored by the guitar duo of Campbell and Vivino, who compliment each other beautifully. Stand-up bassist Mike Merritt (Johnny Copeland) was joined by two keyboard players, a percussionist and a four-piece horn section. The background vocals had the amazing combination of Amy Helm, Teresa Williams and Fiona McBain. All three talented women stepped up to take nice lead vocal turns throughout the show.

Crowd pleasers came early with “Ophelia” and “Rag Mama Rag,” as well as a great version of Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” and a rocking “Shape I’m In.” It was hard not to think about Helm’s former bandmates who have passed on, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, especially during “Shape.”

In his signature bright blue suit, Little Sammy Davis joined the fun, taking center stage for some classic blues vocals and harmonica, midway through the set.

Levon Helm Band :: 06.28 :: NYC
Helm frequently shared the spotlight with his all-star band during the show. Most notably Larry Campbell handled lead vocals on a rollicking version of The Band’s “Chest Fever.” The crowd stood on their chairs and danced for this one like no one even noticed the rain. Towards the end of the set Jimmy Vivino did an exceptional cover of Dylan’s “Tears of Rage.” After the song Vivino commented, “The only problem I have with that song is that it broke up Cream.”

The highlight of the evening was the massive New York Central Park sing-along to “The Weight.” It was a great way to close the show before the encore. To hear the legendary Levon Helm sing that song so beautifully and smile so widely was beyond special. With any luck Helm will take his Midnight Ramble to your town. Or if you’re ever in Woodstock on a Saturday night around midnight, drop by the barn and take in the jams.

JamBase | NYC
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