Various Artists, ‘Love for Levon’ — Album Review
On Oct. 3, 2012, less than six months after Levon Helm lost his long battle with cancer, a large and eclectic group of his friends, family, and peers assembled on stage at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., paying tribute to the man and his musical legacy in front of nearly 20,000 fans. The result, fittingly enough, was dubbed 'Love for Levon.'
Odds are you couldn't make it that night, but you can still share in the spirit of the evening from afar, thanks to an assortment of 'Love for Levon' releases that bring the concert home in pretty much any configuration you can ask for. CD, MP3, DVD, and Blu-ray packages all exist, although for the purposes of this review, Ultimate Classic Rock took in the show on Blu-ray, listening to the performances via the 5.1 surround mix.
Multi-artist benefit or tribute shows generally tend to be a mixed bag for a number of reasons, including scant rehearsal time and a desire to crowd the stage with the biggest, rather than the most sensible, names. Happily, 'Love for Levon' holds up on the latter count; while some of the artists on the bill might not be the first to come to mind when you think about Helm's music, they all had some sort of connection, however tangential, and they all looked happy to be sharing their gifts in his honor (with the possible exception of Gregg Allman, who performed 'Long Black Veil' with a thousand-yard stare -- although that might just be how he looks these days).
On the performance front things are a little more of a mixed bag, and while it's impossible to tell how much of the show's unevenness stems from travel time cutting into rehearsal and how much was the fault of the Izod Center's infamously muddy sound, it's still hard to ignore in spots. The show gets off to a curiously low-energy start, with Warren Haynes drifting through 'The Shape I'm In' before being joined by Allman for 'Veil,' and while things do eventually get cooking, there are definitely a few songs that could have been played better. (For example, this writer recently interviewed Bruce Hornsby, who expressed pained regret regarding his performance of 'Anna Lee,' and it's easy to hear why.)
So there are certainly flaws, and nits to be picked with some of the artists' song choices, but if 'Love for Levon' is ragged in places, that only makes sense; part of Helm's inestimable charm, after all, lay in the way he emphasized heart over proficiency (which is definitely not to say he wasn't a tremendously skilled musician). And the show's less inspired moments don't detract from its high points, which include some moments you probably expect to be great (like Allen Toussaint performing 'Life Is a Carnival' and Joe Walsh tearing through 'Up on Cripple Creek' with Robert Randolph) and a few that might surprise you (like Marc Cohn playing 'Listening to Levon,' a song he originally wrote as a tribute to Helm's music, transformed here into a moving elegy, or Grace Potter's spine-tingling 'I Shall Be Released,' which ends with her -- and possibly you -- in tears). All in all, it's well worth owning for any Levon Helm fan, whether you decide to spring for one of the deluxe combo packs or simply stick with the music.
If you do opt for one of the DVD or Blu-ray sets, however, you'll be treated to an additional disc of bonus material, which includes almost two hours of interviews and rehearsal footage. Like the show itself, it's filmed in a relatively bare-bones fashion, but given that the whole thing was intended as a benefit to help Helm's survivors continue hosting the legendary Midnight Ramble concerts at his Woodstock barn, it makes sense that they opted not to divert a lot of the budget into production values -- and anyway, if you're going to watch these clips, you probably aren't looking for anything flashy. As with Levon's many classic records, it's the music that matters.
'Love for Levon: A Benefit to Save the Barn' Track Listing
Warren Haynes with the All Star Band and Rami Jaffee, 'The Shape I'm In'
Gregg Allman & Warren Haynes with the All Star Band, 'Long Black Veil'
Jorma Kaukonen and Barry Mitterhoff with Larry Campbell, Justin Guip, Byron Isaacs and Jaimoe, 'Trouble in Mind'
Levon Helm Band with Shawn Pelton, 'This Wheel's on Fire'
Larry Campbell, Justin Guip, Amy Helm, Byron Isaacs and Teresa Williams, 'Little Birds'
Marc Cohn with the Levon Helm Band and Greg Leisz, 'Listening to Levon'
Mavis Staples with the Levon Helm Band, 'Move Along Train'
Allen Toussaint with the Levon Helm Band and Jaimoe, 'Life Is a Carnival'
John Prine & Garth Hudsonn with the Levon Helm Band and Joan Osborne, 'When I Paint My Masterpiece'
Bruce Hornsby with Larry Campbell, Amy Helm and Teresa Williams, 'Anna Lee'
Jakob Dylan with the All Star Band and Rami Jaffee, 'Ain't Got No Home'
Lucinda Williams with the All Star Band and Rami Jaffee, 'Whispering Pines'
John Hiatt with the All Star Band and Mike Gordon, 'Rag Mama Rag'
David Bromberg & Joan Osborne with the All Star Band, 'Don't Do It'
Grace Potter with Don Was and Matt Burr, 'I Shall Be Released'
Ray LaMontagne & John Mayer with the All Star Band, 'Tears of Rage'
Dierks Bentley with the All Star Band, Jessi Alexander and Jon Randall, 'Rockin' Chair'
Dierks Bentley & Garth Hudson with the All Star Band, Jessi Alexander and Jon Randall, 'Chest Fever'
Eric Church with the All Star Band, 'A Train Robbery'
Eric Church with the All Star Band, 'Get Up Jake'
John Mayer with the All Star Band and Steve Jordan, 'Tennessee Jed'
Joe Walsh & Robert Randolph with the All Star Band, 'Up on Cripple Creek'
My Morning Jacket, 'Ophelia'
My Morning Jacket, 'It Makes No Difference'
My Morning Jacket, Roger Waters and G. E. Smith, 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down'
Roger Waters and G. E. Smith with the All Star Band, 'Wide River to Cross'
All Artists, 'The Weight'