About 30 miles from the famous, upstate New York town where he helped redefine rock music decades ago, Levon Helm got a 70th birthday party from some of his peers and a crowd of more than 10,000 Sunday night. Helm, the former drummer, mandolin player and vocalist for the Band, headlined the final night of the Mountain Jam music festival at Hunter Mountain Ski Bowl, just west of Woodstock, where he has lived for more than 40 years. The Levon Helm Band anchored the closing night of the weekend festival billed as "Levon Helm & Friends" with appearances by Mountain Jam co-presenter and Allman Brothers Band guitarist Warren Haynes, Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, Sam Bush, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Steve Earle with Allison Moorer, Jackie Greene, Ray LaMontagne, Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers and Hood's father, legendary bass player David Hood.
A torrential afternoon downpour set the stage for a chilly night. But as multicolored stage lights illuminated the idle chair lift overhead, a crowd decked out in winter hats and raincoats smiled, sang along and rocked back and forth to classic Band songs like "The Shape I'm In," "Long Black Veil," "King Harvest" and "The Weight." Helm, a throat cancer survivor, delivered the lead vocals on "Ophelia" with the same growl that defined the rock-and-roots music made famous by the Band.
Helm's duet with Haynes on the Bob Dylan song "Blind Willie McTell" provided one of the night's standout moments. Helm's voice was crisp, and offered a stark contrast to the roar served up by Haynes. Haynes, who staged Mountain Jam with Woodstock-based radio station WDST, performed with his band Gov't Mule both Friday and Saturday nights and sat in with different performers throughout the weekend. "Levon is the greatest backbeat in the world," Haynes told Rolling Stone.
Fagen, who appears regularly at Helm's Midnight Ramble house concerts, led a charging version of the Grateful Dead's "Shakedown Street," complete with jazzy piano chops and a multi-dimensional jam. "Playing with Levon is the most fun ever," Fagen said, "because he has a fantastic groove."
LaMontagne's lead vocals on "Tears of Rage" and Patterson Hood's singing on "Unfaithful Servant" were both spiritual. Helm's daughter, Amy, and her fellow Levon Helm Band vocalist, Teresa Williams, provided layered and luscious backing vocals for Krauss on "White Dove." And Levon Helm Band Music Director Larry Campbell was all over "Chest Fever" with ferocious finger-picking.
Helm, who has won two consecutive Grammys, joked as he left the stage that the more than two-hour set was "a little bit short." Asked how the evening stacked up as a birthday celebration — Helm turned 70 on May 26th — he told Rolling Stone it was "the best one I ever had. I thought it was great."