ACL 2009 Day Two: Levon Helm, Muted but Masterful

Levon Helm's doctor must have the patience of a saint. The former Band drummer underwent surgery to remove polyps in his throat barely a week ago, but instead of canceling Saturday's ACL appearance, he ceded vocal duties to several members of his plus-size band, including leader Larry Campbell, keyboardist Brian Mitchell, Allison Krauss soundalike Teresa Williams and Helm's daughter Amy.

Even then, Rocks Off glanced up at the stage more than once and caught the spry Helm singing along, once during lively Cajun shuffle "Hurry Up" and again after he moved over to mandolin for a swinging, ragtime-flavored version of "Deep Ellum Blues" that featured an honest-to-God tuba. The rest of the time, the spry, rail-thin Arkansan was grinning from ear to ear as he whacked his drums like a 25-year-old.

The band opened with the Band's "The Shape I'm In," and the general answer was "wet," althought the rain stopped shortly before they went on, as if the Good Lord himself was rewarding Helm for honoring his contract. From there, they slipped from Memphis soul to stinging electric blues to the down-home "Tennessee Jed" from Helm's new Electric Dirt LP; the women shone singing lead on country elegy "The Long Black Veil" and the Band's brokenhearted "It Makes No Difference."

Rocks Off kept waiting for them to finish up with "The Weight" or "Up On Cripple Creek," but that didn't happen. It was just as well, we decided, because although his band did a more than able job filling in, the only voice we wanted to hear those songs was Helm's. Otherwise, though, that voice - one of the signature voices of American music - came through loud and clear in his music.

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