Close to 40 talented musicians descended upon the Izod Center in the Meadowlands Wednesday night to pay tribute to the late great Levon Helm at the Love for Levon concert.
The occasion was a benefit to raise money to keep Levon’s barn studio open. For the last few years of his life, Levon and his band played shows at his barn in Woodstock, partly to raise money for his ongoing battle with cancer. A trip to a Midnight Ramble at the barn was almost a religious experience with the Midnight Ramble house band and special guests dropping in to play for hours in an incredible intimate setting. Ramble bandmate Larry Campbell revealed one of the last things Levon said to him was “You gotta keep it going.”
The Midnight Ramble Band and a large horn section took the stage as the house band, and the parade of special guests began.
Warren Haynes kicked off the show with “The Shape I’m In.” Haynes was joined onstage by his Allman Brothers “compadre” Gregg Allman for a moving version of “Long Black Veil.”
The Midnight Ramble Band the stepped into the spotlight to tear through “This Wheel’s on Fire,” followed by “Little Birds,” a duet between Levon’s daughter Amy Helm, and Teresa Williams.
Mavis Staples was the only guest at the show who was in the great Band concert film, “The Last Waltz,” and she stood between Amy Helm and Teresa Williams for a powerful singing of “Move Along Train.”
It became clear that each of the artists had chosen a song that fit their style perfectly, when Allen Toussaint got behind the piano for a version of “Life is a Carnival” with a horn arrangement that sounded like New Orleans had come to New Jersey.
The biggest cheers of the night came for Garth Hudson, the band’s brilliant pianist. At 75 years old, barely visible behind a large white beard and wide black hat, Hudson huddled over the keys, and hit his notes perfectly to the delight of the crowd.
Jakob Dylan and Wallflowers keyboardist Rami Jaffee then ran through a nice version of “Ain’t Got No Home,” and then John Hiatt and Mike Gordon rumbled through the classic “Rag Mama Rag” to close out the first act.
The second act began with David Bromberg and Joan Osborne singing The Band’s “Baby Don’t You Do It.”
Nearly stealing the show was Grace Potter’s rousing rendition of “I Shall Be Released.” We knew the woman could sing, but didn’t realize she could do it while ripping through an organ solo, earning a standing ovation.
The most surprising pairing was Ray LaMontagne and John Mayer, who turned out to be an excellent match for “Tears of Rage.”
The country contingent took the stage for four songs, first Dierks Bentley followed by Eric Church. In the middle of the set Hudson reappeared to lead the organ solo into “Chest Fever.”
Larry Campbell and John Mayer showed off their guitar chops on “Tennessee Jed” only to be topped immediately when Joe Walsh and Robert Randolph brought the crowd to its feet with “Up on Cripple Creek,” with Randolph playing the pedal steel while standing on one leg on top of his chair.
My Morning Jacket gave the house band a break, with the whole group playing a tight version of “Ophelia,” before frontman Jim James channeled The Band’s Rick Danko on “It Makes No Difference.”
Finally Roger Waters took the stage with My Morning Jacket for “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” followed by a duet with Amy Helm for “Wide River to Cross.”
Waters called the entire ensemble back onstage for a group singalong to “The Weight” with all the singers tentatively pushing each other up to the mic for a turn at a verse. Hudson played a solo verse on the piano and Randolph took one on the steel guitar, before the show ended with a bow from the cast.
The whole concert was a love-fest for Levon. Roger Waters summed up the influence and character of the man with a story between songs. In 1990 Waters played Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” after the Berlin Wall came down, with Helm, Hudson and Danko joining him. At their hotel Helm approached Waters, “This guy came over to me, and he looked at me, and he kind of chewed a little, like he did, and he went, ‘Roger, I like your style, I want you to have my hat.’” Waters said as he took the hat off his mic stand and put it on. “And he gave me this hat, and it’s been my fishing hat ever since…and this will be with me to the day I die.”
1. “The Shape I’m In,” Warren Haynes
2. “Long Black Veil,” Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes
3. “Trouble in Mind,” Jorma Kaukonen and Barry Mitterhoff
4. “This Wheel’s on Fire,” the Midnight Ramble Band (Larry Campbell on vocals)
5. “Little Birds,” the Midnight Ramble Band (Amy Helm and Teresa Williams on vocals)
6. “Listening to Levon,” Marc Cohn
7. “Move Along Train,” Mavis Staples
8. “Life is a Carnival,” Allen Toussaint, Jaimoe
9. “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” John Prine, Garth Hudson
10. “Anna Lee,” Bruce Hornsby
11. “Ain’t Got No Home,” Jakob Dylan and Rami Jaffee of the Wallflowers
12. “Whispering Pines,” Lucinda Williams
13. “Rag Mama Rag,” John Hiatt, Mike Gordon
14. “Baby Don’t You Do It,” David Bromberg and Joan Osborne
15. “I Shall Be Released,” Grace Potter
16. “Tears of Rage,” Ray LaMontagne, John Mayer
17. “Rockin’ Chair,” Dierks Bentley, Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander
18. “Chest Fever,” Dierks Bentley, Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander, Garth Hudson
19. “A Train Robbery,” Eric Church
20. “Get Up Jake,” Eric Church
21. “Tennessee Jed,” Larry Campbell, John Mayer
22. “Up on Cripple Creek,” Joe Walsh, Robert Randolph
23. “Ophelia,” My Morning Jacket
24. “It Makes No Difference,” My Morning Jacket
25. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Roger Waters with My Morning Jacket
26. “Wide River to Cross,” Roger Waters and Amy Helm
27. “The Weight,” Ensemble
Keep an eye out for any official CD and DVD releases of the concert, to continue to support Levon Helm and the Midnight Ramble.