Sunday, February 17, 2008

Levon Helm Singing Again

Levon Helm is back, singing again, with a new album of old songs, a routine gig in his Woodstock barn, a story in Rolling Stone and a round of interviews, including one this week on National Public Radio.

The last time we saw Levon at the Bubba Mac Shack, one of a number of times he played there with the Barnburners, he didn't, couldn't sing, but he played drums and backed up a great band.

Of course Levon fits into the History of the Point much earlier, in the pivitol Summer of '65 when he was leader of the band that put into Tony Marts for the season - Levon & the Hawks. The Hawks were just coming off playing a few years on the road with Ronnie Hawkins - thus the Hawks, and they were looking for a place to settle down and get their act together.

Colonel Harold Kutlets, their Canadian booking agent, told them about Tony Marts needing a house band for the summer, and sent them to Somers Point, along with the Female Beatles and a headlliner, Conway Twitty.

After playing June, July and August, Bob Dylan called them at Tony Marts and recruited them to play Forest Hills, where the folk singer was preparing to "go electric" with the best rock & roll band he could find on the East Coast. That was the Hawks.

Following that show, and Newport, Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident and recruiperated at the home of his manager Albert Grossman at Woodstock, New York, an historic artists community that would become even more infamous after the 1969 rock concert. The Hawks had followed Dylan to Woodstock, let their hair grow, and were honning their musical talents for what would change popular music as it was known. They also were now known simply as The Band.

One of the reasons Woodstock became popular was because that's where The Band was known to be holed up with Dylan, jamming in the basement of a pink split level house they called Big Pink, The Band's first album entitled Music From Big Pink and where the bootlegged Basement tapes were made.

I remember first hearing "The Weight" from Music From Big Pink on the Dave Herman show on WMMR one Sunday night, and the tune staying with me forever.

Eventually those who remembered Levon & the Hawks from Tony Marts recognized The Band, and followed their career, and classic tunes like "Rag, Mama, Rag," "The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down," "Chest Fever" and "Up on Cripple Creek."

After backing Dylan for years, playing the Spectrum many times, The Band set out on their own. I remember seeing The Band at Woodstock, in Cleveland, Ohio in New York and in Philly many times.

Even after the Last Waltz, Levon, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and Richard Manual toured together, and played small venues like the Chestnut Cabaret in Philly and the Galaxy on the Black Horse Pike in South Jersey.

With Jody Kish of Mark's News on 8th & Central Avenues in Atlantic City, I booked The Band - Helm, Danko, Hudson and Manual to play Egos nightclub in Somers Point - which Harris Berman had built on the site of the old Tony Marts.

Berman let Jody and me fourwall it - us taking the door and him getting the liquor, but first he wanted to see The Band, to make sure they would fill his joint. So he had Jody and me drive up to New York City with him to see The Band at the Lone Star Cafe. We went to dinner at an Italian restaurant first, and then went to the LSC, where Levon and his manager joined us at our table between sets. We made a deal for The Band to play one show, two sets at Egos on night for $5,000.

Once when I went up to the bar to get a beer I recognized the guy next to me Jaco Pastorius, the bass player for Weather Report. He was pretty waisted, but had his guitar with him, and I had my camera, so I point the lens at him and he holds up his guitar neck so it blocks one his eyes, and looks at me with the other eye and smiles. Nice shot.

He was too wasted to jam with The Band, and they were polite about it, but Jaco didn't get to play on stage that night. He was killed by a bar bouncer a few years later in Fort Lauderdale.

Well, between the time we made the deal for them to play Somers Point - a big Tony Marts reunion concert - and the actual date of the show, Richard Manual killed himself in a Florida motel bathroom, and Tony Marotta and Albert Grossman both passed away.

A week or so after the Lone Star gig, I drove to Philly and caught Rick Danko and Richard Manual do a duo gig at the Chestnut Cabaret near the University of Pennsylvania. After the show I walked Rick and Richard to a cab, and both were looking forward to returing to Somers Point for the first time since the summer of '65.

"Remember Tony and the twin blonds?" Rick asked Richard, who then went into the standard mimicking of Tony Marotta's deep pitched Italian voice, "Youse boys stay away from those girls, they too young for youse..." and we all laughed, as you could almost hear Tony talking.

The show went on however, and it was one of the greatest shows in Somers Point history. The Band brought the house down, and the show made the front page of the Atlantic City Press the next day.

I ran into Rick and the boys in Berlin in 1990 at the Wall, backstage of Roger Waters' The Wall show, where I also met Ronnie Hawkins and got our picture taken together. Ronnie recalled touring with The Band when they were known as The Hawks, and while they mainly played the Chitlin' Circuit that ran down South, they also put into Wildwood and Somers Point, playing his rockabilly songs that he's still playing.

Rick Danko was booked to play a Good Old Days Picnic one year, and he brought a good, local Woodstock band with him, but Rick was slowing down by then. He was getting fat and his face was puffy and while on the Wagon, you knew he wouldn't stay on too long.

My brother Leo rode in the Maloney's Bike-a-thon that day, and pulled his bike up next to the stage. He got Rick to autograph his Maloney's baseball hat, and we talked about the Tony Marts Reunion at Egos, when Rick visited my home in Ocean City and I showed him around town. Of all The Band, Rick was closest to us.

Levon was there too, close to Carmen Marotta, Tony's younger son. Levon and Carmen became partners in Levon Helm's Classic American Cafe in New Orleans, which lasted a few years in the Big Easy.

Then when Herb Birch opened the Bubba Mac Shack on the bay at the Point, he booked Levon Helm and the Barnbuners a few times, and those shows were always terrific, even when Levon couldn't sing.

But now his voice is back, after years of kemo and treatments, and we're all going to enjoy it while we can.

Levon's new album, full of old, classic tunes that he first learned as a kid, is getting great reviews - including one from Dave Fricke - another Philly Guy, in Rolling Stone (See Link below).

There's also a link to Levon's MySpace and his homepage, which details his local Woodstock gigs he puts on every once in awhile in his barn.

Joining him are his daugher and guitarits Larry Campbell, who we're familiar with from the backup band Bob Dylan put together after The Band era, and from albums by local singer songwriter and guitarist Patti Blee, Soozie Tyrell and Patti Scialfa (aka Mrs. Boss). Campbell is on Patti's album "Disguise," Soozie's "White Line" and Patti's "23rd St. Lullaby."

While Soozie and Patti, who used to be roomies in NYC, are currently on tour, on the road, in Europe with the E-Street Band, Patti Blee can be found playing by the fireplace at the Library III on the Black Horse Pike in Cardiff.

Levon and his Woodstock jam band put on regular gigs up there, and sometimes go on the road.

Someday soon we're going to have to take a ride up Highway 9 to Woodstock, visit Big Pink and stop in and see Levon, his daughter, Larry Campbell and Garth, who also lives in them there hills.

Thanks to John Guzak for the heads up on the NPR radio show, which you can listen to right now:

Here's Levon's homepage:

Here's Levon's MySpace:

Here's Dave Fricke's review:

The sole American in the Band, singer-drummer Levon Helm --the son of an Arkansas cotton farmer -- knew firsthand the hard labor, family ties and Dixie fireside tales that were the roots and soil of guitarist Robbie Robertson's songs. On Dirt Farmer, Helm goes home to the tunes and fables of his boyhood, including the traditional "Blind Child," the Stanley Brothers standard "False -Hearted Lover Blues" and A.P. Carter's cheeky "Single Girl, Married Girl," singing them next to rough modern diamonds by Steve Earle and Buddy and Julie Miller. The settings are vintage and natural, how the Band might have sounded in Big Pink during a blackout --fiddle and spindly acoustic guitar by ex-Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell, Helm's own mandolin and roadhouse-swing drumming, and porch-choir harmonies featuring Helm's daughter, Amy. Levon's vocals are a welcome miracle. His victory over throat cancer cost him some of his old soulful weight. But in "Poor Old Dirt Farmer," a Cajun waltz about a man left with only stones for harvest, Helm's drawling howl is heavy with the outrage and sorrow of someone with a deep connection to the land and those who live by it.


Here's Larry Campbell's Homepage:

No comments: