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Levon Helm Makes a Triumphant Return to The Big Stage

Posted: Mar 21, 2007
NEW YORK - He beat throat cancer. Then he sang his way out of bankruptcy.

And this weekend, Woodstock's Levon Helm — whose earthen voice drove old Dixie down and pulled into Nazareth — capped his remarkable comeback with a packed show at the Beacon Theater.

There was his name in lights on the Broadway marquee. There he was, on Friday night, the former drummer of the legendary group The Band, singing strong and playing hard before 3,300 cheering, standing, fist-pumping fans — his largest crowd in more than a dozen years.

There was Helm, in black nylon pants and a blue open-collared shirt, crouching like a cat behind his drums or cradling his mandolin like a baby. Backed by a band that often swelled to 15, he declared in his hearty field holler of a voice, "I don't want to hang up my rock 'n' roll shoes."

Then Helm left the bitterness of being ripped off for royalties behind and resurrected Band classics like "Rag Mama Rag," "The Weight," "Tears of Rage" (with Allman Brothers guitarist Warren Haynes singing), "Ophelia," "Chest Fever" and "The W.S. Walcott Medicine Show."

But most of all, there was 66-year-old Levon Helm making the music he's been crafting since he was a kid in Turkey Scratch, Ark. Helm, who snuck into the F.S. Walcott Rabbits Foot Minstrels shows at night and cooled off in Cripple
Creek by day.

Let John Mellencamp sell cars.

Let Bono sell iPods.

Levon Helm sells only his honest music.

Friday night, it was music — including Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City" and R&B chestnuts like "Back to Memphis" — that rocked, rambled and rolled, like some old-time revue, or one of his recent at-home Midnight Ramble shows. It was music — played by ace musicians like guitarists Larry Campbell and Jimmy Vivino, tuba player Howard Johnson and New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint — that was often as tight as the black golf glove on Helm's left hand.

His drumming was steady and lithe. The voice that had shrunk to a whisper 10 years ago was as rich as the dirt
in the cotton fields he once worked and as exuberant as the honky-tonks he once prowled.

So it was only right that Levon Helm and more than 15 grinning musicians crowded the stage and peaked this triumphant two-and-a-half hour comeback with "Take Me to the River," whose words, "wash me in the water," speak of

The kind of resurrection Helm himself embodies.

-Steve Israel ,
Times Herald-Record

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