By Michael Lello
Photos by Jesse Faatz
WILKES-BARRE, Pa. – Introducing the song “Calvary” during Amy Helm and the Handsome Strangers’ performance Friday night at the F.M. Kirby Center, band member Byron Isaacs said that who sings a song is as important, if not more, as who wrote it. His point was he didn’t see the essence in the song – which he wrote himself – until he heard the late Levon Helm, his former bandmate and Amy’s father, sing it.
He could’ve added where the song is sung could be vital too.
“Intimate” is an overused promotional word in the live music business, used to get you to think you’ll be up close and personal with your favorite artists. Friday’s show, the first in the venue’s new “Live from the Chandelier Lobby” series, delivered on that promise and then some, with the atmosphere deserving equal billing to the music – taking nothing away from the band’s brilliant performance.
After several blues numbers, including “Roll The Stone” and a take on Willie Dixon’s “I Live The Life I Love and I Love The Life I Live” – the latter featuring some fiery fretwork between Handsome Stranger Dan Littleton and guest Connor Kennedy, who also opened the show with his own group – the band switched gears into a pretty ballad.
They switched things up even more after that, leaving the stage to play a handful of songs, unamplified, in the audience, which consisted of a general admission crowd seated at café tables and sofas, as well as some standing in the wings and even on the large Kirby staircase. This is where the room became a true conduit for the music and the wall between performer and patron was shattered. The band lightheartedly strummed its way into Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” always a feel-good sing-along, before delivering a hushed and haunting version of Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend,” which stood out as one the evening’s high points – and there were many.
The aforementioned “Calvary,” which Isaacs wrote for Helm’s Grammy-winning “Dirt Farmer” record, was fantastic, as was “Long Black Veil,” an old number performed by many over the years, including Levon’s group, The Band, with Kennedy guesting again, singing lead. The band’s intertwining harmonies sounded lush and effortless.
Bob Dylan’s “Meet Me In The Morning” was well-received, and “You’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone,” by mainstream country act Brooks & Dunn, was fun and quick. A two song-encore included a spirited delivery of Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That Good News.”
Kennedy’s opening set was a good fit, as the frequent Helm cohort has a style that likely fits the tastes of many of her fans, but with enough electric rock flavors so as not to be redundant. Kennedy’s clear vocals and strong guitar work provided a fine warm-up for the memorable evening, and his songs sometimes echoed heroes of yesteryear as well as contemporaries like Dawes.