Amy Helm paid tribute to her father, Levon Helm, in both obvious and not-so-obvious ways when she and her four-piece band performed at the free, outdoor Woodbridge Wednesdays concert series at Woodbridge High School, on Aug. 25.
She talked about Levon, who died in 2012, before performing Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” (see video below) — memorably covered by Helm and The Band on their 1993 album Jericho — and dedicated it to him.
Then, without any fanfare, she closed the show with an explosive, upbeat version of “She Don’t Love You (And She’ll Break Your Heart)” — written by Robbie Robertson and recorded with different pronouns as “He Don’t Love You (And He’ll Break Your Heart)” by The Band, back when they were still known as Levon & the Hawks, as the B-Side of their second single, in 1965. It’s a great, though little known, song; though few probably noticed it at the time, in retrospect it can be considered one of the early signs that this group was destined for big things.
She also talked about the “Midnight Ramble” shows she helps to present regularly at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, N.Y. (where she is based). The “Ramble” shows honor Levon, too, in a way. And of course, you could say that really, everything she does musically is a tribute to him, as she performs in the same spirit.
Her music, like his, is honest and real and steeped in a broad array of American musical traditions, including blues, folk, gospel and country. The egalitarian interplay between the musicians at the Woodbridge show also felt Band-like: Though she sang all the lead vocals, everyone’s playing was virtuosic but unflashy, and everyone had a chance to shine.
Helm played mandolin on some songs and was backed throughout the show by Daniel Littleton on guitar; Fred Cash on bass; Tony Mason on drums; and Jackson Kincheloe on harmonica and other instruments. It came as a shock when she said that this was Cash’s first show with them, because he fit in so seamlessly.
The setlist (see below) was dominated by songs from Helm’s recent album, What the Flood Leaves Behind. Highlights among these songs included the darkly autobiographical “Cotton and the Cane” (co-written with Mary Gauthier); and the solemn “Verse 23,” which M.C. Taylor (of Hiss Golden Messenger) wrote for Helm. She recorded this song shortly before the pandemic began, though its lyrics seem to reflect on the current state of the world. “You can have some of mine, for as long as it takes/What the flood leaves behind is what we’ve got to make,” Helm sings.
The album’s “Are We Running Out of Love?” (written by Daniel Norgren) also came across as a plea for unity in troubled times, with Helm singing lines such as “You see the light in life when you see love … How long will it take for love to touch everyone?”
Helm’s commanding voice is also well suited for classic material, as she proved on covers of the gospel standard “Didn’t It Rain” and Harlan Howard’s “He Called Me Baby” (originally “She Called Me Baby”), which has been recorded by many country, jazz and R&B singers. The latter segued into the 1973 Ann Peebles hit “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” on Littleton’s suggestion. Helm was taken by surprise, but delivered the lyrics flawlessly, and no one in the group missed a beat.
“When you have players like this, you can do covers like that,” she said.
Helm will also be at the Mt. Tabor Tabernacle in Parsippany (double billed with Steve Forbert), Sept. 17 at 7:30 p.m., and will perform at the Lantern Tour concert (also featuring Emmylou Harris, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams and Gaby Moreno and benefiting migrant and refugee families) at the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, Oct. 30 at 8 p.m.
Willie Nile and Brad Ray will perform in the last show of this summer’s Woodbridge Wednesdays series, Sept. 1 at 7:30 p.m.; visit woodbridgeartsnj.org.
For more on Helm, visit amyhelm.com.
Here is the show’s setlist. Songs in bold are from Helm’s new album, What the Flood Leaves Behind.
“This Too Shall Light”
“Roll the Stone”
“Carry It Alone”
“Wait for the Rain”
“Didn’t It Rain”
“Cotton and the Cane”
“Are We Running Out of Love?”
“He Called Me Baby”
“I Can’t Stand the Rain”
“She Don’t Love You (And She’ll Break Your Heart)”
Here are videos of Helm performing “Atlantic City” and “Roll the Stone” in Woodbridge:
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