Photo Credit (Tim Farrell – The Star Ledger)
On Thanksgiving Day in 1976 The Band played their now infamous “The Last Waltz” farewell show in San Francisco with a companion film directed by a young Martin Scorsese. The film, with guest appearances by the likes of Eric Clapton, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan, has lived on as one of the greatest concert recordings in the essential rock ‘n roll canon.
Flash forward to 2012. Earlier in the year The Band drummer and Midnight Ramble concert series leader Levon Helm is lost after a prolonged battle with cancer. The list of names and lives he changed just by being the friendliest guy in the room, aside from a living musical legend, is too innumerable to properly list. So it only stands to reason that the life of such a man would be celebrated in the only way he would have wanted.
“Love For Levon”, an all star tribute to the late Helm, was organized and staged at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, NJ last night with a rotating cast of special guests collaborating and leaving their hearts and sweat out on the stage.
The show kicked off with Warren Haynes ripping through “The Shape I’m In” followed by the Music From Big Pink classic “Long Black Veil” with sometimes bandmate Gregg Allman. With lightning fast transitions from the very capable and unsung stage hands the crowd was further treated to “Move Along Train” and “Life Is A Carnival” sung by Mavis Staples and Allen Toussaint respectively.
The Band co-founder Garth Hudson received one of the largest ovations of the night as he led the house band into “When I Paint My Masterpiece” followed immediately by a stripped down rendition of “Anna Lee” by Bruce Hornsby at center stage. Jakob Dylan of The Wallflowers sung in a much more up-tempo style and register then he typically does tackling “Ain’t Got Home”. Two songs by Lucinda Williams and Mike Gordon later it was finally…time for intermission!
After a short break the extravaganza continued with one of the more memorable performances of the night coming from Grace Potter who played organ and sang to the rafters with an incendiary “I Shall Be Released”. John Mayer then made his way out for “Tears of Rage” with Ray LaMontagne on vocals. The guitarist seemed more than happy to play the resident Clapton role never approaching the microphone at any point. Then it was Dierks Bentley who provided one of the best old school honky tonk moments of the evening with a rollicking “Chest Fever” onslaught with Hudson leading on the organ.
“I’ve been told that I march to the beat of a different drummer, and that drummer was Levon Helm,” said Eric Church before employing his signature growl on “A Train Robbery” and “Get Up Jake”.
Out again waltzed John Mayer on to the pulpit as held church on an impossible intricate and lengthy “Tennessee Jed” of the Grateful Dead and Helm discography. Then it was time for the Jersey boys to head “Up On Cripple Creek” as Robert Randolph sat in with Joe Walsh who sang lead vocal and guitar like a man possessed.
After the longest time in-between songs, two whole minutes, My Morning Jacket carried the torch with an ebullient “Ophelia” and a pastoral “It Makes No Difference” with Jim James’ heralded croon reverberating against the arena walls. With no introduction or fanfare Roger Waters, dressed in all black with a red baseball cap, took his position alongside MMJ for a once in a lifetime performance of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in a moment that likely had many jam or festival enthusiasts following at home banging their heads against their keyboards.
As MMJ walked off, Waters began to explain the red hat.
“I was fortunate to have Levon with me during a performance of ‘The Wall’ in Berlin. Afterwards at The Intercontinental Hotel, Levon came over to me and said, ‘Roger, I like your style. Take my hat.’ And it’s been my fishing hat ever since … and this will be with me till the day I die, because it means a lot to me.”
After Waters finished his heartfelt tribute with “Wide River To Cross”, the entirety of the night’s guests and performers filled the stage to jockey for audible position on the inevitable “The Weight” superstar closer. It was difficult at points to make out who had taken lead on each of the distinguished verses, but there was no doubt that Waters had chosen the “Crazy Chester…” bit rising above the mass of bodies on stage.
With that the ensemble began to make its way off stage with camera cranes still recording and fans still cheering. Thankfully, this means two great things; there will be some sort of formal video release of this unprecedented gathering, and that everyone appreciated the spectacle they had just witnessed. A night to remember for an unforgettable man. Thank you Levon.
Roger Waters & My Morning Jacket Play At “Love For Levon” – IZOD Center (10/3/12)