While he was growing up as a farm kid in Arkansas, the first live music Levon Helm saw was performed by the F.S. Walcott's Rabbit's Foot Minstrels.
Sixty-some years later, Helm, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his work with the Band, presented his modern-day minstrel show on Wednesday night at the Fitzgerald Theater.
Fittingly performing in the house that "A Prairie Home Companion" rehabbed, Helm, 69, delivered an array of American roots music. The Levon Helm Band, featuring five lead singers, covered songs by Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, obscure blues and R&B, a few Appalachian tunes and a country chestnut, some new Helm originals and several songs by the Band, the prototype for the style of music known as Americana. It was a terrifically generous (140 minutes!), wonderfully musical and downright inspiring performance that thrilled the mostly baby-boomer, Band-loving capacity crowd.
The big concern was Helm's voice, since he had throat cancer and did not sing from 1999 through 2004. In 2007, he made his recording comeback with the acoustic, Grammy-winning "Dirt Farmer," on which his voice had faded noticeably in its oomph. All things considered, Helm was impressive at the Fitz. His voice has lost some color but none of its character as he sang with appropriate urgency, edge and passion.
As he always did with the Band (whose other two singers are dead), he shared lead vocal chores, this time with his daughter Amy; guitarist Larry Campbell (the former Dylan sideman); Campbell's twangy-voiced wife, Teresa Williams, and soulful keyboardist Brian Mitchell. Mitchell took Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate" to New Orleans and did it Dr. John style. Amy Helm and Williams teamed up for a lovably twangy "Long Black Veil" (for which Levon Helm switched to mandolin).
After someone else sang, Helm applauded enthusiastically and offered them a fist salute and a gigantic smile.
Helm's drumming was in-the-pocket funky or tastefully subtle when it had to be. His organic 12-member ensemble always found the right groove and a sense of joy, with the five-man horn section standing out consistently. After vocalist Campbell took the Dead's "Deep Elum Blues" the country-shuffle route, the horn section ended it with a delightful trip to New Orleans. And, of course, during Dr. John's "Mardi Gras Days," they paraded around the stage.
Helm's Woodstock, N.Y.,-based group was a little tentative on songs from "Electric Dirt," their disc due on June 30. He kept consulting lyric sheets, and the band didn't sound as crisp as during the rest of the long, smartly paced show. But it was The Band tunes (from 1967-1976, when they disbanded with the famous "Last Waltz") that the fans wanted to hear, and the Levon Helm Band didn't disappoint.
"The Weight" became like a Woodstockian anthem, "Chest Fever" was as heavy as Helm gets with plenty of blues-rock bravado from Campbell, and "The Shape I'm In," with spectacular horn parts, got a standing O.
With the shape Helm he is in, this was the most reassuring and welcomed comeback by a baby-boomer legend since Beach Boys fractured guiding light Brian Wilson returned with a new group a decade ago.
For a set list, go to www.startribune.com/poplife. Jon Bream • 612-673-1719