By Michael Lello
Amy Helm is playing a vital role in keeping alive the legacy of her late father Levon – and not just in name.
When the legendary drummer, singer and mandolin player from The Band died in April of 2012, Amy had already worked closely with her famous father, performing in groups like Levon Helm & The Barnburners, his more recent touring configurations supporting his Grammy-winning “Dirt Farmer” and “Electric Dirt” albums, and the house band at the Midnight Rambles, the intimate gatherings at The Barn, the performance space on Levon’s property in Woodstock, N.Y.
That mission has taken on more somber shades since then, as playing Levon’s music is now a tribute as well as a celebration. In October of 2012, artists ranging from My Morning Jacket, Grace Potter and Mavis Staples to Roger Waters, Gregg Allman and original Band member Garth Hudson joined a house band, featuring Amy, at “Love For Levon,” a star-studded show at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J., held to raise funds to keep The Barn in the Helm family and released later on video. Remarkably, the Rambles have continued, both at The Barn and on the road, thanks to The Midnight Ramble Band and The Dirt Farmer Band, both of which – you guessed it – include Amy.
At the time of Levon’s passing, the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre was working on booking Levon, so it’s somewhat fitting that Amy and her band, the Handsome Strangers, will kick off the venue’s “Live from the Chandelier Lobby” concert series on Friday, March 21. In advance of the local show, Amy recently spoke with Highway 81 Revisited from her Woodstock home about what to expect at the show, the work that went into her soon-to-be-released debut solo album and how she has embraced Levon’s legacy.
H81R: You’ll be playing here soon at the F.M. Kirby Center. You play in a lot of different formats and lineups. For this type of show, what type of setlist will you be playing?
AH: We play a lot of stuff. We’ve put together a pretty eclectic set. We, let’s see. . . . We do a handful of covers. We do a lot of rock ’n’ roll actually. It’s been a fun set. It’s an incredible band I’ve got together, and these guys are always bringing me up to a higher level every time I get to play with them. I love this band that I’m playing with. I’m so psyched to be doing gigs with them, and we’ve been having a lot of fun at our shows.
H81R: Your love for your father’s music is well-documented. Was it always that way for you? Did you ever try to rebel against it, maybe as a youngster?
AH: Let me think about that. (Long pause). No, I don’t think I did. My dad, he was a great dad in that regard, and I think a great teacher to other musicians who played with him. He was very cool about that. If I wanted to try something or I was singing a kind of music that wasn’t his thing, something that was different than the music that he really liked the best, he was always open to it and interested in what I was doing and really encouraging. I don’t think I ever tried to rebel so much.
I think I went through . . . I think when you have a parent that does the same thing that you do, it has its trappings, and you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t feel that. I definitely went through my own journey of getting at peace with it, of having the last name and having the expectation and the projections of people in the audience. I think in many ways, he’s the one who got me over that and into a very centered place with it where it was just always about the music, and helped me jump through those insecurities a long time ago when I first started singing in bands.
H81R: I understand you’re working on your first solo album. Where are you at in that process?
AH: Well, I’ve finished the record, and I’m in the process of just finalizing it and hoping to have it out in the late spring.
H81R: What brought you to this point of it being the right time for you to record your first solo release?
AH: I have been working on this record off and on for, I don’t know, I guess about four years, and I began working on it because I had an interest in doing my own album and beginning to try to learn the art of writing and co-writing with friends and with Byron Isaacs, who produced the album as well. I think that the timing just aligned that the songs came to life at the time that they did, and we got the music around the songs at the time that we did, and now it feels like it’s ready to come out. I think album’s take on their own timing and songs take on their own timing, and I think that every musician ends up with the best intentions of their own plan and their own trajectory but they follow what the song dictates. That’s what I did.
AH: Writing, Bryon and I co-wrote half of the album, then I did a Sam Cooke cover, and I covered two songs by Martha Scanlan, who is an extraordinary singer and songwriter, and also covered a Mary Gauthier song, and I had an extraordinary bunch of musicians play on the record. My father plays on about four or five tracks, Larry Campbell plays on it, a lot of the guys from the Ramble Band are guests on some of the songs, and for the core band I used Byron and Chris Masterson, Dan Littleton and myself.
H81R: How have you approached fronting a band with your name on it, as opposed to playing in a support role, as you also do in other bands?
AH: Someone asked me about that recently. I think it’s a really interesting question, and I think that I really enjoy both. I really truly love both, and I think I always will. When you’re in a supportive role like I was in the Midnight Ramble Band or Olabelle, where you’d step forward for a couple lead songs, then you’d come to the background where you’re supporting the next singer and really trying to put your energy into that, it’s a very humble kind of practice in a way, and I think it really sharpens your listening and gets your ears stronger. I think there’s a lot to be gained from it. And singing lead is fun and a completely different energy of course. I’m thoroughly enjoying both, and I’m happy to have the opportunity to do both, because you’re using two different sets of ears, and you’re using different muscles in your body and in your singing and in your intention, and it’s pretty cool.
H81R: This might be a hard question, but do you have a favorite song by The Band to perform?
AH: That is a hard question because there are so many that I love. The ones that are my favorites are the ones that I haven’t gotten up the courage to perform yet because they’re so hard to sing (laughs). I mean, I’ve been trying to motivate myself to try “Lonesome Suzie,” which I think is one of the most extraordinary vocals; I mean Richard Manuel’s performance of that song is just . . . Anyone can just study that on repeat 100 times.
That’s on my wish list. I can answer that question with that: My wish list is “Lonesome Suzie” and maybe “Whispering Pines.” I do love to sing “It Makes No Difference.” I love singing background harmonies on “Caledonia Mission,” that’s been my favorite lately. Byron’s been singing “Caledonia Mission” at the Rambles and with the Dirt Farmer Band, and I love singing the backgrounds and playing the little mandolin riff. That’s my latest endeavor in my study of Band music, which is never-ending.
H81R: When you’re playing a classic song, by The Band or anyone else, are you trying to be faithful to the original version or put your own spin on it? Both?
AH: Hmm. That’s an interesting question too. I’m sure that answer is different for every singer and probably even depending on where their head is at on that particular day on that particular gig. I do best with those songs if I can tell the most honest story inside of it, so I’ll know pretty quick if my voice does not suit a song or if it’s not the right fit, I won’t do it. I guess I first try to bring the story into my own experience and what I can tell inside the song, and then I know pretty quickly and I can play with whether I want to emulate and honor the original version by throwing in some licks or stealing licks from the singer and doing that in kind of an honoring way.
H81R: The Midnight Rambles have taken on a life of their own and are still going strong even after your dad’s passing. Why do you think they’ve been so well received by audiences and performers alike?
AH: I think that he set a precedent for what the show would be about, which was purely musical and purely joyful. And I really believe that audiences and musicians alike catch that, and even still, I think that’s the expectation. When you go there to play a gig as a musician, you’re going into it knowing that it’s a different scene in a way, energetically in that room it’s a real open place, and I think people coming to hear music go in feeling the same thing and with the same intention of really having a good time. There’s no pretense, there’s nothing self-conscious about it. I think that’s a part of it. I think rooms and venues hold their own history, and certainly The Barn holds that.
H81R: Did events like “Love For Levon” and kind words from musicians and fans help the healing process for you and your family when your dad passed?
AH: It was extraordinarily supportive and helpful. It was overwhelming and really, really loving. When you lose somebody — as I’m sure you know, I’m sure you’ve had loss in your life – every word means so much. And every kindness and every acknowledgement of grief and every word of support means so much, and every comment that I got, every letter that I got from strangers, was hugely impactful to me and my family.
H81R: Do you feel that part of your job or mission to help continue the legacy of his music?
AH: Yes. Yes I do. And I think I share that job with a lot of people. I think that it is our responsibility as artists to always try to continue the legacy of what we’ve learned from our heroes, both gone and still here. I think that it’s your job as a player to pass on to the next generation the good songs and the space inside of the song and the solo, all of the things that we learn and we absorb. It’s our job to pass it along. So I definitely feel connected to that and I think my father’s, his audience has been extremely loving and supportive to all of us at the Midnight Rambles, all of the musicians, and I feel a sense of gratitude. They’re still coming to the shows and having a good time, and I want to share that with them and honor that too.
Amy Helm w/ opening act Connor Kennedy, “Live from the Chandelier Lobby,” F.M. Kirby Center (71 Public Square, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.). Friday, March 21, 8 p.m. Tickets $27. (570) 826-1100, http://www.kirbycenter.org.