Levon Helm and John Hiatt
- At Massey Hall
- On Tuesday
Down in the United States, they have this countrified youth organization called The 4-H Club, with the 4 Hs referring to hands, heart, head and health. Tuesday night at Massey Hall, a nearly full house of roots-rock devotees got a variation of its own that we’ll call the 2 H Club, the Hs here belonging to Levon Helm and John Hiatt. But, it seems to me, the 4-H criteria (with a little poetic licence and monkey wrenching) would still seem to apply. To wit…
In 1998, Helm, the former drummer and vocalist for the Band, contracted throat cancer. And although the disease obviously threatened his signature country-wail vocal style, today he estimates that his voice has returned to about 80 per cent strength. Sure, there’s more of a rasp than there used to be (Helm was the vocalist on such band classics as The Weight), but the voice still reeks of humanity. Not that it mattered much anyway. Helm’s outfit boasted four other vocalists (including daughter Amy) who shouldered most of the leads on this night. Hiatt, a youthful 58, has not had to deal with such weighty health issues, but his style these days would still suggest otherwise. His vocals seemed to have gone the Bob Dylan route, nasal and a bit reedy, the result, no doubt, of 40 years on the road.
Hard to miss Helm’s hands, at least the left one, sheathed as it was in a black glove, Michael Jackson-style. Helm’s Ramble on the Road (named after his famous musical get-togethers in his Woodstock barn) features a dozen other musicians, including a five-piece horn section. But unlike most percussionists, Helm is situated right up at the front and side of the stage. Which is as it should be, because although he didn’t sing much, his simple, rolling, signature drumming style drove this feel-good crew all night long. Hiatt, is, of course, less well-known as a guitarist (although he provided solid rhythm all night long) than he is as a songwriter. Best hands during the Hiatt performance belonged to guitarist Doug Lancio, who ripped off some mighty impressive blues and country-rock leads on classic Hiatt favourites such as The Tiki Bar is Open and Perfectly Good Guitar.
At 70, having recovered from serious illness, and with a lifetime musical pedigree already secured, it would be understandable if Helm decided to kick back and reminisce on past glories. Instead, he has assembled an absolutely stunning musical ensemble with which he is keeping American popular traditions alive. Tuesday night saw rollicking New Orleans style jazz (complete with parading horn players and a roadie/percussionist on bass drum), kick-butt roadhouse R&B ( Good News), barrel-house piano jazz ( The Bourgeois Blues) and Southern gospel ( Long Black Veil, with daughter Amy on lead vocals) – in short, a virtual musical text of 20th century, predominantly Southern American musical styles. For the old fans, there were some Band numbers tossed in, too ( Ophelia was particularly rollicking). The heart and soul behind the whole ensemble was so obviously Levon, who sat beaming behind his kit (though there were occasional forays to centre-stage to pick some mandolin) and acted like the perfect bandleader.
As noted, his singing isn’t quite as full-sounding as it used to be, but Hiatt’s song-writing talents are still in full bloom, as evidenced from numbers taken from his current The Open Road release. The title cut itself was a rocking reconsideration of Hiatt’s life on the stage, and could easily be a staple of the Bruce Springsteen canon. My Baby is and was an affectionate country-blues song that said more in four stanzas than most of us could say in a novel. But for all that, Hiatt’s hour-plus opening slot was hardly cerebral. Hiatt and the Combo were in total good-time mode, seemingly enjoying themselves as much as the audience did. In short, a happy night all around.
Levon Helm’s Ramble on the Road and John Hiatt and the Combo both perform July 8 at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and July 11 at the Ottawa Bluesfest. John Hiatt also performs July 13 and 14 in Kitchener and London.
Special to The Globe and Mail