(Editor’s Note: This piece appears on The Bowery Presents The House List. Check it out here)
In 2007 on Eye to Eye with Katie Couric, Levon Helm made a surprising confession. When asked by interviewer Anthony Mason how throat cancer affected his status as a singer, Helm responded, “I’ve always thought of myself as the drummer and I’d take my turn to sing whenever I’d have to, but my joy is to play the drums.” This sentiment is not a coping strategy. In fact, Rolling Stone ranked him No. 91 in the list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time. Rather, Helm, a drummer for more than 50 years with acts ranging from the Hawks to his career-defining stint with the Band, seems quite pleased to continue drumming into his 70s, even if his voice is faltering. And on Monday night at Central Park’s SummerStage, he steadily manned his band’s rhythm section, contented by a workman’s approach and delighted with a broad smile.
Joined by openers Hayes Carll and seminal country musician Emmylou Harris, the Levon Helm Band played from nightfall to rainfall. In the beginning, Helm offered his vocals on the Band classic “Ophelia.” Fans showed great appreciation for the effort, a reminder of Helm’s rare ability to simultaneously sing and drum exceeding well. And despite being able to sustain vocal duties, the rest of his extraordinarily talented band compensated for the loss, singing and harmonizing beautifully throughout the show.
Renditions of country standards “Long Black Veil” and “Deep Elem Blues,” made popular by the Grateful Dead, shared similarities to the original versions but took on a unique, lively character when played by the Levon Helm Band, a reflection of the band’s namesake. So even as rain poured down on the all-ages crowd, Helm and his band’s energy overcame the elements. And when the band closed with “The Weight,” joined by special guests Shawn Colvin, Joan Osborne and David Bromberg, all in attendance forgave the weather and sang along. We’re more than happy to share vocal duties with Helm.
Photo courtesy of Gregg Greenwood | www.gregggreenwood.com