You would be hard pressed to find a musician -- young or old -- who takes the stage with as much enthusiasm, sheer joy and gratitude as Levon Helm does. The legendary drummer is ecstatic to be making music, and he shows the audience as much appreciation and love as they do for him. When his band took the stage to close out Burlington's Discover Jazz Festival, it was clear: this was a celebration.
There's a great mystery that comes with music, especially from a musician of Levon's caliber; he's rock royalty. You can't pinpoint it, you can't replicate it and no other person can do it quite the same. His energy makes everyone in his band sound better. The way he plays drums embodies a one-of-a-kind finesse that balances both beautiful subtlety and that of a hard-driving machine. It makes seeing his 12-piece band bounce with such sublime thickness. And yes, to say the least, it's an inspiration and complete joy to see a man making music with such exuberance just about a week after turning seventy.
"Rock 'n' roll!!!" someone yelled out between songs in the quiet Flynn Theater about halfway through the show. Levon without missing a beat responded in his raspy voice, "That's what we like!" And all night his band delivered what would fall under the colorful umbrella of rock 'n' roll -- everything from country blues to gospel to soul to Mardi Gras second line to the tunes Levon helped make timeless in The Band. Each person onstage had plenty of moments to shine. Right off the bat pianist Brian Mitchell took lead vocal duties on a rousing rendition of the classic Band number "The Shape I'm In." Guitarist Jim Weider took several acoustic slide guitar solos throughout the night that were as tasty as can be. And multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell proved why Phil Lesh often refers to him as "the master," as his playing and vocals were not only at the forefront most of the night, but also spot-on all night. And he turned the place inside-out with his fiery, psychedelic solo guitar intro to "Chest Fever."
The one thing that everyone in the room wanted more of was, of course, Levon's voice. Sadly, it doesn't have the strength and stamina it used to, but still sounds like country-soul magic, an equal dose of honey and smoke. Before singing lead for the one time that night, in his self-deprecating and humble way he told the crowd to "cover your ears." But that voice of his still sounds amazing. And when he came out front to play mandolin on "Deep Elem Blues," his shared enthusiasm with Campbell took the song to new heights -- definitely one of the finest moments of the evening.
The band had a few hiccups along the way, too. It was a reminder that they do keep it real night in, night out and that they are going for it. They flubbed the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed" and it was actually rewarding to see such a group of professionals have a split second of fear in their eyes as they found themselves lost. Of course, they pulled back together just in time to avoid a complete train wreck. And Theresa Williams and Amy Helm singing "It Makes No Difference" was a stretch. Despite how beautifully they harmonize together, the pure desperation of the song, especially coming from a man, is what makes it so crushing. Hearing two pretty voices singing it took away its edge. But a song this good still does it, and chills and goose bumps ensued when they hit the finally line together: "Just to keep myself from telling you/ that I never felt so alone before."
"The Weight" and "I Shall Be Released" closed out the show. These two songs are poignantly symbolic of the man onstage who was leading the band through them: completely timeless. Do yourself a favor and go pay Levon a visit on the road this summer, or, even better, go to a Midnight Ramble at his studio in Woodstock. This band knows how to make music.