Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Levon Helm @ Red Rocks

In the last couple of months, the drive between Colorado and Texas has become a familiar route to me; I travel it at least every other month in search of the next great show. But I am used to using it the other way; when headed North, I’ve never been going to a show before. It gave the whole thing a rather strange vibe, from getting my first ticket (and then being pulled over again 2 minutes up the road :x ), to hitting the first live armadillo I’ve ever seen 5 minutes after that, all the way up to the car in front of me hydroplaning and shooting across the road into a ditch on the way to the venue, to the seat NEXT to mine winning a pre-release copy of Electric Dirt, something just wasn’t quite right about the whole thing.

Seeing Larry in the wings from my 3rd row seat however, eased my mind, and upon spotting Levon, a true legend, a little to his left, I was ready. They took the stage to standing ovation, and kicked off w/ Ophelia. It didn’t take long to notice that something was amiss. Besides the two musicians I’ve already mentioned, there was an acoustic guitar, another electric, a mandolin, a B3, an upright bass, and 5 horn players! A blind man would not have noticed anything but the horn players though, for aside from the vocals, they were all you could hear. Don’t get me wrong, I like horns, but not that many, and not that overpowering. It was really counterproductive to have anything acoustic onstage at that point.

I tried to shrug it off, figuring that it was merely a mix issue, and that it would be worked out and took to watching Levon. Behind his frail appearance, he still is a young man (as clich├ęd as that sounds) and that is clear to anyone watching him perform. The entire show, but especially behind his kit, he was grinning from ear to ear, mugging for the audience, and just generally having a blast. What a life.

The next couple of songs I didn’t recognize, they were, I suppose, fun little horn numbers, whether or not they were meant to be fun little horn numbers I don’t quite know. The audience, too, was really getting on my nerves. We, for some inexplicable reason, had 4 extra people squeezed into our row who weren’t made to leave, so everyone was practically sitting on each other’s laps. The girl one to my left was carrying on a phone conversation that seemingly consisted of only “Oh em gee” and the guy to my right was air guitar/air drum/conductor man (keep it up pal, I think they’re going to invite you on the road w/ them any time now :roll: ), as well as being the know-it-all commentator, who, in actually, didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. I was beginning to think I’d gone at this thing w/ too high of expectations. :?

The first highlight of the night came next though, in the form of Long Black Veil. The horn section took this one off, Theresa took lead vocals, and it was a great, chilling version. This was the first time I’d actually gotten to hear Theresa singing (aside from just backing) and I was deservedly impressed. This song too, unfortunately, suffered from the odd mix. Larry took a mandolin solo, but it sounded as though the instrument wasn’t even plugged in; it just clicked.

The bassist and organist left after Veil, leaving just the Helm and Campbell families onstage. Levon came center to take the mandolin for Got Me A Woman, his daughter Amy taking over on drums. They worked out the mandolin issue enough to where you could actually hear it on occasion, so no complaints about this one. Was happy to hear it, even if it is a standard at Rambles and other Levon gigs. The next song, however, blew my mind, rather unexpectedly too. Anna Lee was the first song on Dirt Farmer that I really grew tired of hearing, and I still skip it occasionally. Not that its not a fine song, but its just not usually my kind of song. Tonight though, I could not help but be amazed. The power and strength of Levon’s voice is something to be reckoned w/ ; it never wavered or shook even while holding the long notes (even more impressive in the high altitudes), and the emotional power throughout was really ineffable. Campbell’s fiddle perfectly complemented the mood of the song. You would think the events happened just yesterday, and that this Anna Lee was his everything. This was truly one performance that will stick w/ me for a while.

The rest of the band returned shortly, and it was much the same as it had been. There were Band covers such as Rag Mama Rag and Shape I’m In, other regular Ramble favorites, and even a song or two from the new album. At this point I had accepted, but was still not a fan, of the horn section, who between then all, played at least 10 different types of horns, including 3 varieties of sax……. on the same song, which got to be a bit redundant. If it were up to me, I’d have lost at least 2, possibly 3 of those musicians. 

The best, and one of the final songs of the night was an incredible Chest Fever! Larry took the whole intro himself, everyone else on stage stepping back and watching to form a semi-circle of reverence around the guy. He took lead vocals as well (one of the only times his mic seemed to be on all night) and everyone just took it away and rocked w/ it. 

John Prine was brought out for The Weight, which, honestly, could have been a lot better. It suffered from FAR too many people being on stage, and Prine looked and acted as though he’d never heard the song before in his life.

Prine was the next act, and I opted to stay and see what all he was about. I know I have a couple of his songs on my computer, but I’d never really searched out any more of his works. He’s claim to fame seemed to be good songwriting though, so I was interested.
But I sat, and I sat, and I sat some more, listening all the while to the most cheesy, boring, pointlessly high school lyrics one can imagine. It was really G-dawful! In multiple songs, he took to rhyming ‘fish’ w/ ‘dish’…… and these were not songs about eating seafood off plates! He rhymed ‘dog’ w/ ‘log’ and the audience lapped it up. All the complaints I’ve heard about the Dylan band actually applied here. He sang one note throughout the whole song, enunciating the vowels making him hard to understand. His guitarist was literally playing the most boring, easy riffs imaginable in that place. The contributed NOTHING to the song, and just generally added to the suck (a word I have never used to describe a show before) of the whole thing. I do not understand why the audience went crazy.

In my entire life, there has only been one other show I have ever wanted to walk out on (Ziggy Marley opening for Dylan in 08), but for some unimaginable reason, I stayed. Glutton for punishment? Probably. I really wanted it to get better, though I knew it wouldn’t. I had at least one song on my computer, I knew, at least ONE of his songs had to be good. So I sat, shaking my head. 
He sent his band away.
That didn’t fix things, he was still as terrible as ever.
I sat some more. I sat and I froze, having become unaccustomed to the cold, thin night air, waiting for something that would never come.

And then, just like that (w/ know-it-all incorrectly predicting a different song), it came! It really came! Sam Stone! For a show that was so mind-numbingly bad up to this point, this was like a completely different person was on that stage. It was incredible! This was the reason I had stayed! His band came back out towards the end, the bassist bowing a very moving low end to the tune.

The next song saw a return to the previous suck-tastic formula, but the bassist grabbed his red Fender P-bass for the first time of the night and dug in, laying down a smooth line. I can listen to any song as long as a song has a good bassline, so Prine continued to sing about bees and knees, and I let the bass thump on. 

This was a far better formula, but even it grew old after five or six songs. This guy CLEARLY didn’t know when to stop! And finally, I could take no more. When, at last he vacated the stage, I stood up and made a beeline for the exit, while everyone else whooped and screamed their hearts out. I knew I’d be missing a lame encore, (that is probably STILL going on), but I didn’t care. On the way out, I passed some friends discussing the show:
- That bass was turned up too loud.
- Yeah, I thought he was a lot better when he was by himself….
:shock: You CANT be serious!!!!???!!!??!!!! :shock:

I’ve had a lot of requests to write this review; I think I’ve actually has a lot of requests to write a glowing review. And I really wanted to write a glowing review. This was Levon! At Red Rocks! The sound was a huge reason I was excited about this show; shows always sound great at RR, but that was perhaps the biggest disappointment of all. The bassist may as well have been playing a banana, and other acoustic instruments, as well as most of Larry’s vocals, were lost to the cosmos. Perhaps other rows had better mixes, but I’m not so sure.

I’m not about to say it wasn’t a good show, or that I wouldn’t go back (I would in a flash), but for a show that I’d hyped up so much (in my mind), things could have been better.

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