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Music Review

Helm rides high at the Orpheum

Email|Print| Text size + By Jonathan Perry
Globe Correspondent / March 3, 2008

Triumph and joy. You could see it in Levon Helm's eyes, on his ear-to-ear grin, and most of all, you could hear it within the soul of the music Saturday night. Not just inside the music, but outside of it too, enveloping the Orpheum stage and its performers - between nine and a dozen of them at any given time - like a warm, cloaking embrace.

Save for the fact that more than four decades of use have slightly worn away the sharp corners of a voice that will be forever linked to some of the most powerful anthems of all time (Helm sang two of them, "I Shall Be Released," and "The Weight," as elegiac encores), there was little indication that anything had slowed down the 67-year-old Helm - certainly not a battle with throat cancer and nearly 30 radiation treatments. His vocals, as craggy and hardscrabble as his Arkansas roots, sounded as pungent and rascally wry as ever.

In fact, the onetime singer-drummer for The Band was riding high before a near-capacity crowd, and with good reason. He's just won a Grammy for last year's "Dirt Farmer," his first studio album in a quarter-century, recently became a grandfather, and had a crack band (among them the likes of Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell and a four-piece horn section) backing him on chestnuts like the Mardi Gras-flavored "Ophelia" and the honky tonk boogie "Rag Mama Rag."

"Backing him" might be the wrong description, however. Rather than occupy center stage (which he did only when he switched to mandolin), Helm set his drum kit stage left facing sideways toward his band. Having worked among ensembles of musicians for so many years, Helm was a graciously egalitarian presence, generous with sharing - and ceding - the spotlight.

As a result, the two-hour show - which opened with the muscular-as-Muscle Shoals jam "Goin' Back To Memphis" - felt like a celebratory free-for-all hootenanny by the hearth, or one of Helm's own "Midnight Ramble" sessions at his home in upstate New York. He brought out powerhouse voiced Phoebe Snow to deliver Van Morrison's "Into The Mystic"; whooped it up while octogenarian blues singer-harmonica player Little Sammy Davis swung through "Fannie Mae"; and had his opener, the jazz singer Catherine Russell, apply soulful jazz and blues shadings to his reading of Ray Charles's "I Want To Know."

The evening closed with Helm's own valiant attempt to take the lead vocal on the haggardly regal "The Weight." That endeavor was immediately usurped, however, his effort-exerting voice drowned out by the rapturous chorus of the crowd singing with him - to him in fact. Bashing away behind his drums, Helm positively beamed. Like the song itself, his burden had been lifted.

The Levon Helm Band

At: the Orpheum Theatre, Saturday

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