Levon Helm Band delivers amazing show at the Michigan Theater
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Levon Helm burnished his own legend at the Michigan Theater on Monday, delivering a two-hour set that was unpredictable and confident—all the things you’d hope for from a show by the former Band drummer and singer, but wouldn’t be terribly surprised if you didn’t get.
At 71 and increasingly frail, Helm, the inveterate music lifer, didn’t sing a whole lot on Monday, but ne never stopped smiling once throughout a marathon set that surveyed the breadth of American music.
But all the parts were there, provided by a band that swelled at times to 13 members, including a four-piece horn section, creating a muscular, punchy sound that still found plenty of opportunities for individuals to shine.
In fact, turning most of the vocal work to his band members, Helm was mostly out of the spotlight, anchoring the rhythm section with his signature meat-and-potatoes drumming style and pitching in with some harmonies here and there.
Several years on from the throat cancer that robbed him of much of his voice, Helm was judicious about when and where he sang and, in fact, he never once spoke between songs. But when he launched into the vocal on The Band’s chestnut “Ophelia,” there wasn’t anyone else in the world who could have been singing.
It was a glorious, horn-soaked rendition that staked its own claim on the tune.
And in fact, part of the magic on Monday was the way Helm and company dealt with the rather large shadow of that great, pioneering Americana band. Rather than ape the originals, Helm’s band reinvented the catalog.
As a result, Garth Hudson’s iconic Hammond B3 workout, “Chest Fever,” became a guitar showcase for bandleader Larry Campbell. “Lonesome Suzie” was slowed down into an easy, greasy New Orleans grinder and the opener. Of the small handful of Band numbers they tackled, only “The Weight,” augmented by opening act Joe Pug and his band, resembled the prototype.
But how are you going to improve on “The Weight,” right?
There wasn’t a lot of showbiz glitz. Campbell served as a low-key master of ceremonies, of sorts, and the looseness of the between-songs transitions occasionally threatened to sap the show of its momentum.
But the band’s way around an arrangement was stunning. Solos were short but impeccable, and, even under the weight of such a large band, someone always stepped forward up to release some of the pressure with a pithy horn line or a stinging guitar fill.
Campbell deserves credit for marshaling the resources, but keyboardist Brian Mitchell was the not-so-secret weapon, alternating between vamping with the rhythm section and occupying a front-line presence on vocals. His reading of Allan Toussaint’s “On Your Way Down” was a stunner.
Helm’s daughter, Amy Helm (leader of her band, Ollabelle), was a sturdy presence, delivering fire and brimstone on a couple of gospel and old-timey numbers, while singing lovely harmonies with her father on the traditional “Little Birds.”
True to the ethos of Helm’s “other” band, instrumentation was fluid on Monday, with members jumping from one instrument to the next as it suited the songs. Helm even returned to the mandolin on a couple of numbers.
It seemed to take the audience a little while to catch the spirit of Monday’s show. But the band wouldn’t be denied and, by the time the amps started warming up, so did the energy in the house.
And by the time the last chorus of “The Weight” echoed into the room to close the main set, the response was everything that Helm, a true giant of American music, deserved.
On Monday, just exactly as he has for more than half a century, he earned every bit of it.