It is not often that one encounters a legend face to face, but when audience members filed in to see Levon Helm perform at 8 p.m. on March 5 in the State Theatre, they were sure to have that experience.
Recovering from his 1998 diagnosis of throat cancer, Levon Helm, who has spent his whole life dedicated to music, was told he would never sing again. But the 69-year-old musician is a true performer. Helm made a consecutive two-time Grammy-winning comeback with his 2007 release of “Dirt Farmer” for best traditional folk album and his 2009 release of “Electric Dirt” for best Americana album. Having worked with musicians like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and influenced others, such as Elton John and Marc Cohn, Levon Helm remains an inspiration.
The Wood Brothers, a two-man band consisting of brothers Chris Wood on bass and Oliver Wood on guitar, provided the opening entertainment for the famed performer. While the duo could not quite match Helm’s skill as a multitalented musician, The Wood Brothers gave a solid performance in their folksy-blues style.
Chris Wood’s fingers created masterful moans with the cello, while his older brother Oliver Wood provided the lyrical and guitar accompaniment to songs such as “Tried and Tempted,” “Lovin’ Arms,” “Chocolate On My Tongue” and “Up Above My Head.” Often, Chris Wood would play the harmonica or harmonize with his brother’s voice while simultaneously providing the walking bass lines to the songs. The Wood Brother’s hour-long set served as a brilliant opening act for The Levon Helm Band. They relaxed the audience with their mellow soft sounds.
The other members of The Levon Helm Band carried the vocals of most of the songs, but Helm had a maintained a quiet but powerful presence on stage. The original member of the rock group, the rest of the band was always moving with his rhythm as he kept the beat with his skillful drumming.
Brian Mitchell, a singer and musician for the band, whose voice was raspier than Levon’s, pleased the crowd with his frequent chromatic scales on the piano and head banging. While Mitchell switched between playing the piano and accordion between songs, other members of the band carried musical solos: Steven Bernstein on the trumpet, Clark Gayton on the trombone and Jay Collins and Erik Lawrence on the saxophone. They alternated between the brass solos in “Fannie Mae” and gave the song a lively, jazzier feel.
To the delight of audience members dancing in the aisles, The Levon Helm Band also performed some older, popular hits. “Long Black Veil,” originally featured on the band’s 1968 album “Music From Big Pink.” It was a crowd pleaser as Teresa Williams’ and Amy Helm’s powerful country voices belted out the lyrics. The band’s “Remedy” also began with screams of approval from the crowd, as it featured Jimmy Weider on acoustic guitar, with Larry Campbell performing a sick electric guitar riff. The angelic harmonies of Larry Campbell, Amy Helm and Teresa Williams were simply breathtaking when singing their rendition of The Grateful Dead’s “Attics Of My Life.”
The highlight of the set was when Levon Helm traded his drumsticks for his mandolin and began singing “Deep Elem Blues.” It was endearing to watch Levon Helm and his daughter Amy Helm sway to the music, each leaning into a shared microphone. It was one of the most infectiously spirited tunes.
At the end, The Wood Brother’s were invited back onstage to sing the band’s 1968 hit “The Weight.” Like the performance began, the show ended with a full standing ovation from audience members, who filled the theatre with deafening applause.