LIVE: The Levon Helm Band @ John Gill’s Farm, 10/16/11

Most of my good friends know that I was an unhappy transplant to the Capital Region more than 15 years ago. In my youthful angst, I found little about upstate New York that could compare to what I experienced in Chicago, though I admit that I probably kept blinders on for the better part of a decade. I waited far too long to think about it, but finally realized that there are too many incredible things within reach of us here to turn away from, too much that I wouldn’t have access to if I moved to a big city.

One of those things that keeps me here is the annual fall concert at Gill’s Farm. Less than 15 miles from the town of Woodstock in the small town of Hurley, a genuine farm site is the perfect setting to host a free concert with one of the legends of the original Woodstock Music Festival. John Gill hosts this free event to show off his giant 100-foot pumpkin cannon (which launches pumpkins nearly a mile), attract some business to his farm stand, and show some love for his town. (There are farms closer to Chicago than you might imagine, but there damn sure isn’t one that could do an event quite like this.)

Levon Helm and his band headline the show, bringing with him a small legion of devoted fans. There’s a different vibe in the crowd than at most shows, a clear feeling that this is an event, not simply a concert, though much of that may have been constructed out of the wishes and memories of those in attendance more than anything else. There were easily a thousand people in the crowd—not bad for a town of less than 6,500 — a good portion of them of the generation that remembers Levon’s heyday with the Band, a handful of 2011’s closest analog to hippies and a hell of a lot of people that just enjoy good music.

Levon spends most of the afternoon holding down the rhythm from his throne at the corner of the stage, letting Larry Campbell do most of the band-leading. I heard some grumbling in the audience that they didn’t play more of the Band’s classics, but when you have Theresa Williams and Amy Helm there to handle most of the vocal duties, why would you? Levon’s voice is in rough shape these days, and when they finally played “Ophelia,” the first of two Band songs featuring Levon on vocals, his singing was more croaking than singing, though he kept belting it out as best he could to rise above the harmonies. By the second verse, though, Amy Helm was helping her dad out by doubling the melody to get him through the rest of the song. Levon could be heard occasionally trying to add some vocals in other songs, but most of the time the songs would have been better served if he’d focused on his drumming (which was rock-solid) instead of trying to force some vocals he couldn’t manage.

Though the crowd really came alive during “Ophelia” and “The Weight,” the rest of the set was so strong that these songs hardly count as high points of the day. They were fun sing-alongs, but the group really showed what a powerful force they could be when they go back to Levon’s roots. The three-part harmonies and mandolin accompaniment on “Long Black Veil” sounded more like a Carter Family country spiritual than Lefty Frizzell’s murder ballad. Amy Helm sang “Ain’t That Good News” with more power and authority than she has at other times, belting out the chorus with enough energy to push Jim Weider and Larry Campbell to tear it up a little harder on guitar.

Though the set ebbed and flowed a bit as they explored more blues and country songs, the energy built throughout the afternoon, if for no other reason than the demonstrable enthusiasm of everyone in the band for the music, rising to the point where Amy and Theresa were bouncing on their toes at the microphone like teenagers singing their favorite songs into a hairbrush in front of the mirror. This much enthusiasm is irresistible, and I look forward to this show every year.

Spirit Family Reunion did more than open the show, they tuned the audience’s palate to the kind of old-time music that would dominate the afternoon. Their music is reminiscent of farm house front porches, the great depression, backwoods hollers and sneaking moonshine when the old folks aren’t watching. Their original songs sound as if they’re already part of the Americana songbook alongside Woody Guthrie and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Multi-part harmonies layered on top of acoustic guitar, a single drum and doghouse bass, accented by banjo, fiddle and accordion, all crowded around a single microphone made for a show that was as engaging in its simplicity as Levon’s show was in its complexity. For half an hour you could believe you were at a country fair 70 years ago.

The cash I dropped on their EP is the best $9 I’ve spent on music in a long time. They’re not the kind of act that’s likely to get very big, and we’re likely to have to settle for seeing them as an opening act and at festivals, but they’re worth a short road trip if you can find them.

Review by Eric Gleason

Derek McCabe’s photographs at Live Music Blog

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