The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down: A Celebration of the Life and Music of Levon Helm. With Marco Benevento, Dave Dreiwitz, Scott Metzger, and Joe Russo (a/k/a Bustle in Your Hedgerow) and many others.
Monday, June 4
Better than: Nothingness.
One of my favorite conversations with the late psychonautic writer Terence McKenna had to do with the evolution of psychedelic rock during the late 1960s. “Things seemed to be going along just fine,” he once riffed to me. “The Rolling Stones came out with Their Satanic Majesties Request and the prospects for real psychedelic rock seemed limitless. And then the Band released Music From Big Pink, and everything seemed to go into reverse all at once.” Even today, The Band’s Canadian take on Southern culture has permeated our own cultural DNA as though it had been there all along. And with Levon Helm, the group’s only Southerner, as its heartbeat and preeminent singer, perhaps it always had.
So here we are, some four decades after the Band’s recording heyday, still singing along to “The Weight” in the company of strangers as though our lives depended on it. When the 71-year-old drummer born Mark Lavon Helm died in April, he was celebrated mostly as yet another exception to the no-second-acts theory of American lives. Helms brilliantly created his own mythology from the ground up, building a barn-studio and throwing upscale-hootenanny “rambles” that nurtured and preserved in Woodstock aspic the Robbie Robertson, Bob Dylan, and other rock oldies he made his own.
Organized by Noah Chernin (of the band Sam Champion) to help keep Helm’s barn a-rambling in its builder’s absence, last night’s tribute had a casual give-the-people-what-they-want quality to it. The core band—Marco Benevento (keyboards), Dave Dreiwitz (bass), Scott Metzger (guitar), and Joe Russo (drums)—usually perform together as Bustle in Your Hedgerow, an instrumental science experiment involving Led Zeppelin covers. Hopes (well, mine anyway) were therefore raised that the quartet would sweep the sawdust off some of these chestnuts.
‘Twas not to be, though, as singer after singer—including the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn (“Jemima Surrender”), Guster’s Ryan Miller (“Ain’t No More Cane”), Grayson Capps (“Dirt Farmer”), Nicole Atkins (“Whispering Pines”), Phosphorescent (“Look Out Cleveland”), Family Band (“Evangeline”), American Babies (“Don’t Ya Tell Henry”)—stepped forward to sing-read the Helms songbook to Bustle’s impeccable accompaniment as Diamond Doves’ horn section and a trio of female vocalists provided dimension and a certain je ne sais oomph.
But kudos to Ian Felice for not only knowing all the words to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but also lending a hunter-capped, streetwise panache to the song, which condenses a Caro tome’s worth of grief, rebellion, and resolve into a cinematic allegory for America’s then-cresting counterculture. Finn at least picked a song (“Yazoo Street Scandal”) whose lost-weekend hallucinations resonated with his own work. And Kelli Scarr transformed “King Harvest” into a creditable soul workout. Guitarist Jim Wieder, keyboardist Brian Mitchell, and other members of Levon’s ’80s solo band dropped by and doubled up with Bustle for much of the show. And Elvis Perkins offshoot Diamond Doves stepped in for a three-song miniset that included Search and Restore concert promoter Adam Schatz’s unexpectedly jazzy take on Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore.”
Fifty or so musicians took the stage for “The Weight,” which ended the show as a disheveled hymn to all things that must pass. Put the load wherever you want, but here’s a thought: Unless someone brings something new to the table, maybe we don’t need to hear these songs for a while. They’ll remain on file, of course, as resonant variations of ongoing stories we tall ourselves about life in these United States. But I’m still waiting for someone to cover the hell out of Their Satanic Majesties Request.
Critical bias: Shamefully missed the boat for Levon’s Midnight Rambles.
Overheard: Craig Finn telling Bustle that “Singing with you guys is like sitting in with a freight train!”
Slippin’ & Slidin’
Back to Memphis
Ain’t No More Cane
Look Out Cleveland
Yazoo Street Scandal
When I Paint My Masterpiece
Don’t Ya Tell Henry
Don’t Do It
Up on Cripple Creek
W.S. Walcott Medicine Show
Rag Mama Rag
Long Black Veil
I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore
(I Don’t Want to) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes
Deep Elem Blues
Shape I’m In
I Shall Be Released