Levon Helm - vocals, drums, mandolin; Jimmy Vivino - guitar, vocals; Larry Campbell - guitar, mandolin, fiddle; Brian Mitchell - keyboards, vocals; Amy Helm - vocals, guitar, drums; Little Sammy Davis - harmonica, vocals; Theresa Williams - vocals; Katherine Russell - vocals; Clark Gayton - trombone; Steven Bernstein - trumpet; Eric Lawrence - saxophone; Howard Johnson - tuba, saxophone; Lincoln Schluyfur - electric bass; Shawn Payton - drums; Guests: Jake Shimabukuro - ukulele; Gillian Welch - vocals; David Rawlings - guitar, vocals
The Newport Folk Festival was never strictly limited to folk music, but the 2008 festival expanded the musical diversity of the festival more than ever before. Perhaps taking a cue from the massive success of younger festivals like Bonnaroo, the 2008 Festival included bigger ticket artists like The Black Crowes, Jimmy Buffett, The Levon Helm Band, Trey Anastasio and The Cowboy Junkies, right along with the folk, bluegrass and blues troubadours that once topped the bill. Despite some weather issues, this approach turned out to be a resounding success and all of the headlining acts turned in memorable performances that often conveyed the influence of the traditional styles that originally launched the festival.
One of the most highly anticipated and ultimately rewarding sets that year was presented by Levon Helm and his band, who performed second to last on the final day, just before Jimmy Buffett closed the festival. Performing before the largest audience on site that year, Helm sported a tight 13-piece band of talented musicians and singers that not only included blues harp legend Little Sammy Davis and guitar slingers Larry Campbell and Jimmy Vivino, but also the legendary Howard Johnson horn section, the leader of which may have performed with more Newport Festival acts over the years than any other musician.
Helm originally attained his world class status as one of the most soulful singers in rock & roll history with The Band. His work with that group has influenced generations of artists, many of whom were on the Newport bill and have covered his songs. By the time of this concert, much of Helm's musical focus revolved around his Midnight Rambles, an ongoing series of public jam sessions held at his barn and home studio in The Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. Featuring many of the musicians who also resided in the Woodstock/Bearsville area, along with a wide variety of ever-changing guests, these concerts helped raise the money for his mounting medical bills from his nearly career-ending bout with throat cancer. At the dawn of the decade, Helm had undergone an arduous regimen of radiation treatments, followed by a removal of a tumor and, although the treatments had been successful, his powerful clear tenor had been reduced to little more than a rasp. For the first several years, Helms relied on guest vocalists at his Midnight Rambles, but in 2004 he slowly began building his voice back up again. By 2007, Helm had overcome seemingly insurmountable odds and recorded his first solo album in a quarter of a decade. In 2008, that album, titled Dirt Farmer, would earn Helm a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album and the Americana Music Association would award him Artist of the Year honors.
Just as this great new phase of his career was in full force, Helm and his band hit the Newport Festival stage armed with a setlist that showcased his solo work as well as half a dozen choice crowd pleasers from his days with The Band. The recording begins with the smoldering opening blues number, "The Same Thing," shortly in progress to warm things up. Right from the start, it is obvious that Helm is in great form both as vocalist and as the drummer propelling the action. This becomes even more apparent on the hot New Orleans flavored "Ophelia," featuring superb piano work from Brian Mitchell and lively contributions from the horn section. Next they introduce Little Sammy Davis, who fronts the group on a rousing rendition of "Fannie Mae," before Helm's daughter, who not surprisingly is quite the soulful singer herself, fronts things on the hard driving, "Love Played A Game."
With Amy Helm providing harmonies, the other great vocalist in the band, Theresa Williams, next takes lead on the traditional "Long Black Veil," a second taste of material from Helm's tenure in The Band. This is a wonderful acoustic-based performance, with Mitchell playing accordion and Campbell providing beautiful mandolin embellishments. With similar instrumentation and Amy Helm taking over the drum seat, Levon takes lead vocals and switches to mandolin on a number from the Dirt Farmer album, "Got Me A Woman." With many of the same musicians on the Newport stage that played on the album, this is a great performance with standout acoustic guitar contributions from Campbell and Vivino and tasteful accompaniment by the horn section, especially trombonist Clark Gayton. This acoustic-based fun continues with the same configuration venturing into bluegrass territory on "Ashes Of Love," with Campbell switching to fiddle. Campbell's fiddle becomes the primary instrument on the most traditional folk flavored number of the set, as Helm delivers "Anna Lee," another fine song from the Dirt Farmer album.
Following an introduction of the horn section, the group eases into a fantastic reading of "Deep Elem Blues," featuring plenty of great acoustic guitar work and that amazing horn section gradually building up the intensity level to a dramatic conclusion. With the Newport audience firmly enamored, Helm and his band conclude the set by tearing it up with four classic songs from Helm's tenure in The Band. What is most amazing about these performances of "Rag Mama Rag," The Shape I'm In" and "Chest Fever" is just how fiery they actually are. All are played with incredible enthusiasm and easily rival the energy level of Helm and The Band from decades prior. These are all musicians who obviously love playing together and that camaraderie is reflected in the performances. Of particular note is this version of "Chest Fever," with Campbell cranking out an incendiary electric guitar intro (in place of Garth Hudson's infamous "Genetic Method" keyboard intro) prior to the group launching into the song proper.
By this point, the audience is thoroughly enthralled, but Helm and pals have one last trick up their sleeve, inviting Gillian Welch, David Rawlings and Jake Shimabukuro, the phenomenal ukulele player who drove the Newport audience wild earlier in the day, up on stage to help them execute "The Weight." With all the featured instrumentalists taking solos and so many great voices providing harmony vocals on the choruses, this is a magical performance that caps off one of the most memorable sets of the 2008 festival.
-Written by Alan Bershaw