The Allman Brothers Band, Pink Floyd and The Eagles have shared space on radio station playlists for decades, but last night at New Jersey’s Izod Center was probably the first time that their members shared a stage. And yet, there they were: Gregg Allman, Roger Waters and Joe Walsh, performing not just at the same concert, but at the same time. It was an incredible finale to the Love For Levon concert, paying tribute to The Band’s late drummer/singer/mandolin player, Levon Helm (who passed away earlier this year).
All net proceeds from the concert will help Helm’s estate keep ownership of his home, barn and studio, and to continue the “Midnight Ramble Sessions,” which Helm hosted and headlined in the last few years of his life. The concert felt like a celebration of Helm’s life, the ultimate “Ramble” (albeit at a slightly larger “barn” than usual, and with more guest stars).
Allman Brothers Band guitarist and friend of Levon’s, Warren Haynes opened the show on a rocking note with The Band’s “The Shape I’m In.” After that, he introduced his “long-time compadre” and bandmate, Gregg Allman who walked onstage with an acoustic guitar to perform the traditional “Long Black Veil” (which The Band covered on their 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink). Another Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Jorma Kaukonen (a member of the Jefferson Airplane), performed the traditional “Trouble In Mind,” which he recorded at Helm’s home studio (and which featured Helm on drums).
The show’s co-musical director Larry Campbell (who played in Helm’s band for years) then took to the mic, saying “I’m proud that I’m still a member of the Levon Helm Band, now known as the Midnight Ramble Band.” The group plan to still perform “Rambles” at Helm’s home, provided they are able to raise the funds to keep ownership. And they made a compelling case that they are a good band without their late leader, performing “This Wheel’s On Fire” and, joined by Helm’s Band-mate Garth Hudson, “Little Birds” (from Helm’s Grammy-winning 2007 comeback album, Dirt Farmer).
Two of The Band’s collaborators joined the ensemble: gospel singer Mavis Staples for “Move Along Train” (written by her father, Pops Staples) and New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint for “Life Is A Carnival” (one of the few Band songs that Helm co-wrote, this one with Robbie Robertson and Rick Danko).
One of the many highlights of the show was soul singer Grace Potter, who sang Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” from behind a Hammond organ, getting one of the night’s many standing ovations. (While Bob didn’t appear at the show, Jakob Dylan, along with fellow Wallflower Rami Jaffe, did, for a cover of Clarence “Frogman” Henry’s “Ain’t Got No Home,” which The Band recorded on 1973’s Moondog Matinee).
Pop star John Mayer took to the stage twice, but avoided microphones, instead sticking to playing guitar: first joining roots singer Ray LaMontagne for “Tears Of Rage” (a song written by Bob Dylan and The Band’s Richard Manuel for their debut album), and later with Larry Campbell for a cover of The Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” (from Helm’s final studio album, 2009’s Electric Dirt).
Helm was profoundly influenced by country music, and that influence went both ways, as evidenced by country stars Dierks Bentley and Eric Church’s performances. Bentley performed two songs: “Rockin’ Chair” and “Chest Fever” (assisted by Hudson), but it was Church who had the line of the night when he said, “People say I march to the beat of a different drummer. That drummer is Levon Helm!” Church’s performance of “A Train Robbery,” telling the tale of Frank and Jesse James, likely earned him quite a few new fans.
Helm’s music, solo or with The Band, didn’t usually feature flashy guitar. But no one seemed to mind when his former All-Starr Band-mate Joe Walsh and slide guitarist Robert Randolph cranked up the volume for “Up On Cripple Creek.” (Walsh and Helm played together on Ringo Starr’s first All-Starr tour in 1989).
My Morning Jacket is a group who owes a lot to The Band, and they were more than happy to try to pay it off with a horn-driven version of “Ophelia” and an emotional “It Makes No Difference.” They were then joined by former Pink Floyd mastermind Roger Waters for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”
Following that song, Waters showed the audience a trucker cap, and explained that Helm gave it to him on July 21, 1990, when Helm, Garth Hudson and Rick Danko joined Waters at his performance of The Wall at the (former) site of the Berlin Wall. He noted that he wears the cap when he goes fishing and that it will be with him until the day he dies. He was then joined by Helm’s daughter Amy (who performed throughout the night) for an emotional “Wide River To Cross” from Dirt Farmer.
(Roger Waters and the hat given to him by Levon Helm in 1990/ photo credit: Brian Killian, Getty Images)
After that, the entire ensemble of artists returned to the stage for, of course, The Band’s classic “The Weight,” with Waters, Allman, Staples and Potter splitting the lead vocals, in a performance that is unlikely to ever be repeated. However, a camera crew were present all night, so a future DVD release seems likely. The show’s setlist:
Warren Haynes- Shape I’m In
Gregg Allman & Warren Haynes- Long Black Veil
Jorma Kaukonen- Trouble In Mind
Levon Helm Band – This Wheel’s On Fire
Levon Helm Band & Garth Hudson- Little Birds
Marc Cohn – Listening to Levon
Mavis Staples – Move Along Train
Allan Toussaint- Life Is A Carnival
John Prine & Garth Hudson- When I Paint My Masterpiece
Bruce Hornsby – Anna Lee
Jakob Dylan- Ain’t Got No Home
Lucinda Williams- Whispering Pines
John Hiatt & Mike Gordon of Phish- Rag Mama Rag
David Bromberg & Joan Osborne- Don’t Do It
Grace Potter- I Shall Be Released
Ray La Montagne & John Mayer- Tears of Rage
Dierks Bentley- Rockin’ Chair
Dierks Bentley & Garth Hudson- Chest Fever
Eric Church- A Train Robbery/Get Up Jake
Larry Campbell & John Mayer – Tennessee Jed
Joe Walsh & Robert Randolph- Up On Cripple Creek
My Morning Jacket- Ophelia
My Morning Jacket- It Makes No Difference
My Morning Jacket & Roger Waters- The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
Roger Waters & Amy Helm- Wide River To Cross
All Artists- The Weight
— Brian Ives, CBS Local