Burlington Vermont Discover Jazz Festival 2010: In Service to the Community
June 13, 2010
The Levon Helm Band may have seemed like an odd choice for a jazz festival unless you've seen the former drummer with The Band in recent years. As he's performed with a full complement of versatile musicians and singers, they've been augmented with a horn section that resoundingly echoes the vintage arrangements written by none other than Allen Toussaint for that iconic rock group's Rock of Ages concerts back in 1972. Levon and Co. are doing justice to the legacy of the unit he once led (then known as The Hawks), and they continued that campaign in the Flynn the final night of Discover Jazz 2010.
There couldn't have been a more celebratory rousing conclusion to the festival than Levon & Co. The Flynn Theatre crackled with the electricity of high anticipation, and when the wiry 70-year old strode jauntily out on stage and bowed to the crowd, the ovation was hearty and genuine. As was the response to the performance (and rightly so): Helm and his band did justice to songs by The Band ("The Shape I'm In"),Bob Dylan ("I Shall Be Released") plus rhythm and blues traditional (Fannie Mae")and contemporary fare ("Everybody Loves A Winner"). The group rendered each style as if it was their sole chosen niche.
All the while, a five piece horn section including famed trumpeter/arranger Steve Bernstein and tubaman Howard Johnson (who played Allen Toussaint's horn charts with The Band live) providing accents and decoration that, often as not, were as uplifting as the featured performers on a given tune. The bandleader himself, though somewhat weak in voice, nevertheless vigorously thumped his drum kit in his immediately recognizable style, a spare approach echoing Booker T & The Mg's Al Jackson: Levon drove the band constantly but knew when to lay out.
And there were surprise song choices that belied any sense that Levon and his band had simply chosen familiar material to play it safe. The drummer's daughter Amy sang "All La Glory," the lullaby from The Band's Stage Fright (Capitol, 1970), in appropriately tender tone, while her vocalist counterpart Teresa Williams displayed a fragility in her voice similar to a young Emmylou Harris when she sang Robbie Robertson's gorgeous ballad "It Makes No Difference."
Multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell has devised a guitar intro to "Chest Fever" that pays homage to keyboardist Garth Hudson's "The Genetic Method" but utilizes the unique characteristics of the electric guitar in the form of distortion and feedback. Likewise, partnering with equally fluent fretboardist Jim Weider, Helm's second-in-command ground out a nasty riff for Dylan's "Blind Willie McTell."
The sound in the room left something to be desired as Brian Mitchell's acoustic piano got shrill at times, and during some intervals, acoustic guitars were way too low in the mix. But Byron Isaacs' stand-up bass had the proper impact, as did the horns throughout the night. It's a challenge to balance such a big band, in more ways than one, but generally speaking, once this two-hour set came to a close, it was apparent that everyone in the room was perfectly satisfied. If you saw no other Discover Jazz shows in 2010, this might well have sufficed, but it would also, no doubt, whet the appetite for what lies ahead in June 2011.