How you know you're getting long in the tooth: you're at a Levon Helm concert, vibing out to the song you sparked your first joint to in 1967 when Helms pauses to give a shout out to his surgeon. Silly, yes. Depressing, maybe. But in this case, the tribute was apropos: Without his doc, Helm -- who battled throat cancer in the '90s -- wouldn't be able to sing the songs that have endeared him to multiple generations of rock fans.
And sing he did this Saturday night at New York's Beacon Theatre. With help from a surprise lineup of guests that included New Orleans homeboys Dr. John and Allen Toussaint, Dylan session guitarist Larry Campbell and the Allman Brothers' Warren Haynes (in town for a thirteen-gig run at the Beacon), the ex-Band drummer -- who introduced each performer with reverence -- segued seamlessly from a cover of Springsteen's "Atlantic City" on mandolin to killer renditions of Band classics "Ophelia," "Tears of Rage," "Chest Fever" and "Up on Cripple Creek." Despite looking a bit frail, Helm didn't stop smiling for the whole three-and-a-half-hour show.
Throughout the night, Helm powered through raucous, on-your-feet numbers (helped by a blazing horn section and bouncy fiddle), countrified, harmony-filled ditties and tear-inspiring slow burners. A high point of the evening came when Haynes -- joined by the evening's all-star cast of music heavyweights -- led a tribute-concert-caliber performance of "I Shall Be Released."
But the best part of the night almost didn't happen. When the house lights brightened (after a phenomenal rendition of "The Weight"), most of the crowd got up to go home. The faithful kept cheering, though, and five minutes later, Levon and company -- including former Band keyboardist Garth Hudson -- shuffled back onstage for a wild, winding "Take Me to the River." It was a sweet reward for the audience members who -- for whatever reason -- don't move too fast.