The newspaper interview was the first hint that something might be up again with Levon Helm. In advance of Wednesday’s show at Wolf Trap, I read an interview in The Express with Larry Campbell, the guitarist in Helm’s band, and wondered to myself, “Why didn’t they talk to Levon?”
When his band played Wednesday night, the reason because quickly apparent. Helm had all but lost his voice again, after beating throat cancer and undergoing another round of surgery to remove a growth. He squawked his way — badly — through a few songs, leaving most of the singing to the rest of his band (which was surprisingly sloppy and loose). Had I not been given a ticket for free to the gig, I would have felt a little bit like I’d been taken.
I’m certainly willing to cut Helm a break, though. He’s 70, he’s been through hell and back, he’s my favorite drummer of all time (and I loved the fact that he set up his rig at stage left, instead of the center — he’s been doing that for decades), and he’s made two genuinely great albums in the last few years. I also have a fantastic live recording of him playing with his band at Merlefest a few years ago, and attending one of Helm’s Midnight Rambles in Woodstock would be on my bucket list if I had one.
But at some point, it’s important for a singer to admit that his voice just isn’t up to the task at hand. Helm didn’t sound like he was having a bad night or a temporary vocal problem, either; he sounded like a man who is struggling to talk, much less sing. And that led to a mildly disappointing evening at Wolf Trap.