When Levon Helm, the favorite son of Turkey Scratch, Ark., and the drummer for the Band, rolled into Wildwood Park last weekend, the question wasn't who would want to see him (everyone of a certain age in this state) it was, just who in Arkansas ponies up $125 and $200 for tickets to a show? Turns out, it's who you'd expect: mostly well-heeled, mostly older, mostly white folks. (Grousing overheard at the reception: “Bunch of old hippies here.”) Coevals of Levon's, in other words. Turns out you've got to earn in this life if you're going to hear your heroes sing about hardship.
No telling how many people in the room paid face value, and how many ponied up for the privilege, but the 625-seat theater looked about 50 heads shy of a capacity crowd. Before the show, they were treated to a brief, cheeky biography of Levon (first-name basis here, only) told “This Is Your Life”-style, by his friends and admirers. Not least among those was Gov. Mike Beebe, who was a teen-ager when he first saw Levon drum. “He's a prince, and we're all very proud of him, and we're glad he came back,” the guv said.
A nasty case of laryngitis kept Helm from so much as speaking to the crowd. Other reviewers along this tour have praised Helm's voice as carrying “the added weight of mortality,” still quite capable after treatments for throat cancer. Alas, on Saturday the only whispers the crowd heard from the man Rolling Stone once named among its top 100 singers of all time were faint “one, two …” counts before he put sticks to snares.
That much he did with reassuring grace on a trap set downstage, and for a couple of songs, even took up the mandolin. With his silver hair parted at center, and his frame gaunt beneath his dress shirt, Levon's health and age (69 last month) was a subplot to his every move. When he finally did leave the stage after a 23-song set that closed with the Band's “The Weight” and drew at least three standing ovations, he did so carrying a box of tissues under one arm.
Despite the prices, and despite the silence from the star, it's doubtful anyone left the show feeling shorted. The 11-piece backing band, which included Levon's daughter, Amy, on vocals, was impressive in every aspect (if overpolished at times) through a round of Southern rock and blues staples, with a swirl of zydeco. Brian Mitchell, on keyboard, showed how quickly an accordion can take over a stage full of horns and strings. Howard Johnson's bari sax lead on “Natural Anthem” was a highlight, and when the five-man horn section began parading around the auditorium during “Mardi Gras Day,” the stuffed shirts in the house went from rowdy to delirious. Far from an Arkansan's eulogy, you'd have thought a New Orleans funeral had broken out.
I liked it a lot. People in the theater were laughing out loud.