Levon Helm’s musical legacy revealed itself to be in good hands on Wednesday night at Love for Levon, an open-hearted benefit concert for the family of the late singer-drummer of the Band. Packed with marquee musical names including Roger Waters and My Morning Jacket and intimate anecdotal sharing that belied the enormity of its space – the Izod Center in New Jersey – the collaborative evening of covers raised funds to help Helm’s family to retain ownership of his home and converted-barn studio in Woodstock, New York.
Love for Levon also served as a financial and symbolic continuation of Helm’s famous Midnight Rambles, the campfire-style jams he established in his studio for talented folk, country and rock musicians. Fittingly, the evening shared the affectionate give-and-take ethos that made the Rambles so legendary: egos were nonexistent, vocals readily shared, lengthy solos undemanded. The singer and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell served as the unofficial master of ceremonies; he led the Levon Helm Band, a revolving ensemble of 12-odd brass, keys, strings, and percussion players (now redubbed the Midnight Ramble Band, he noted), and introduced most of the plentiful guest stars.
Campbell first ushered out Warren Haynes of the Allman Brothers Band, who lent languid, freewheeling strings to the Band’s live staple “The Shape I’m In.” Gregg Allman joined Haynes and the backing band for a bluesy, organ-heavy spin on the standard “Long Black Veil” (covered by the Band on their 1968 debut Music from Big Pink); guitarist Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane and the skillful mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff ratcheted up the slow-burning crawl with “Trouble in Mind,” a track from Kaukonen’s 2009 record River in Time that was recorded at Helm’s studio (with Helm himself playing drums).
At Izod, the most rabid receptions seemed reserved for those who’d contributed to the Band’s heyday, or at least held a direct connection to it: Garth Hudson, the Band’s influential organist, received a standing ovation from much of the room as he pounded keys for “Little Birds” (from Helm’s Grammy-winning 2007 solo album Dirt Farmer). He lingered and was accompanied by a beaming John Prine (dapper in a suit, and introduced as “a hero of Levon’s”) and the Levon Helm Band for the Band’s seminal track “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” Their heartfelt, drawling call-and-response soon found folksy kinship in surprise guest Jakob Dylan’s raspy, fervent spin through “Ain’t Got No Home,” a Clarence “Frogman” Henry hellraiser that the Band covered. (Bobbing in his wide-brimmed hat, Dylan could almost duck the irony of delivering a song with the lyric “I ain’t got no father,” even though Bob wasn’t present to support his late friend.)
Though the old guard of the Band collaborators delivered warmly talented moments, the younger Helm enthusiasts proved formidable as well. Lucinda Williams’ keening vocals on “Whispering Pines” (one of Robbie Robertson’s most beautiful songs for the Band) drew goosebumps, and Grace Potter’s effortlessly controlled soar through “I Shall Be Released” tumbled steadily toward a devastating climax of vibrato and smashing piano. Afterward, Campbell stared agape at her retreating form before marveling, “How about that?” (Potter, for her part, maintained modesty by saying succinctly, “This is one of the great pleasures of my life.”)
Ray La Montagne and John Mayer delivered a beatifically understated “Tears of Rage” (by Bob Dylan and the Band). La Montagne maintained his gorgeous, reedy rasp while keeping his hands stuffed unassumedly in his pockets, and Mayer contributed modest rhythm parts and evaded all theatrics; he’d deliver those later in the virtuosic, largely instrumental barnstormer “Tennessee Jed.” The country singer Eric Church offered an unexpectedly poignant highlight when he leant his solid twang to the Helm rarity “A Train Robbery,” a song chock full of the heartland storytelling Helm excelled at (“We will burn your train to cinders so throw the money on down/ Open up your damned express car and jump down to the ground”). Church also covered the Band’s “Get Up Jake” and spoke touchingly of his experience playing a Ramble, closing with the battle cry, “I’ve been told that I march to the beat of a different drummer, and I do – Levon Helm.”
After a blazing, funk-laden “Up on Cripple Creek” by Joe Walsh and Robert Randolph, My Morning Jacket lent ear-rattling, sax-heavy squalor to “Ophelia” and “It Makes No Difference” before Roger Waters joined them onstage. Perplexingly, he received no introduction; equally mysteriously, the smiling Pink Floyd singer was clad in black yet toting a battered, bright red baseball cap, which he hung immediately from his microphone stand. After he and MMJ drove “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” into fine country-psych lather, Waters explained his prop: Helm had given it to him after they performed together in the historic “The Wall: Live in Berlin” concert after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, and Waters vowed that he would keep it close “until the day I die.” He and Amy Helm (Levon’s daughter and a soulful, bluegrass-inflected singer in her own right) then delivered a lovely, elegiac duet on “Wide River to Cross.”
By the cinematic ensemble closing of “The Weight,” during which every performer of the night stuffed the stage, the room pulsed with familial goodwill. It was appropriately similar to the benevolent mood of The Last Waltz, the Band’s spirited swan song – and with Waters’ scarlet hat resting prominently on the central microphone, a spotlight lending it soft glow, the evening seemed far more a promise to Helm than a farewell to him.