Friday, April 20, 2012

Remembering Levon Helm

It was a crisp fall day in late 2008 when we gathered at Levon Helm's studio in Woodstock to partake of his generosity in agreeing to sit in on two tracks for my CD The Deep End. Andy York of John Mellencamp's band, my longtime friend and co-producer was there with Paul Ossola (at that time the bassman in Levon's band, but also a compadre of many years going back to The Scratch Band, Paul's and my band with GE Smith. Paul was the catalyst for the session, having pitched the idea to Levon, for which I am eternally grateful). Also with us were Jeff Kazee (keys in the NYC Hit Squad and Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, and a fabulously soulful vocalist himself) and the great Marshall Crenshaw on second guitar and baritone guitar.  Levon had graciously lent not only studio space but himself as drummer on Marshall's and my duet, "What's The Matter With You Baby," a Motown chestnut originally recorded by Marvin Gaye & Mary Wells (Marshall is a Detroit boy, born and raised, so I thought the song a good choice!).

The studio in Woodstock is clean, beautiful space, almost devoid of the usual baffles and glass. Even the control room is just a balcony, completely open to the rest of the studio, which sits below it. Upon entering the room, Levon had greeted me so warmly, taking my hand in both of his and saying his name, "Leh-VOHN", with that Arkansas lilt. I was captivated and charmed immediately by this lovely man, known as "Lee" to his friends.

The session moved quickly, and we soon had what we thought was a pretty good take. Lee seemed frail; he'd recently resumed playing after his first bout with the cancer, and I didn't want to overtax him. We gathered in the control room, listened, and all eyes turned to Lee.  "You're singing your ass off on every take," he said, fixing me in his sights with a chuckle, "but personally, I don't think I did myself any favors with what I just played.  Would you mind if we took it again?"  

Of course we were all for it, and re-entered the studio. Levon sat down at the drums and indicated a new intro he wanted to add, giving us just a taste of a new groove he'd envisioned while we listened back to that previous take.  The genius of the man (and the musician) became apparent then, as he sure-footedly turned the groove around from what we'd had, and led us through a one-time romp that swung so hard with a snaky little backbeat, we just knew it had to be the one. And it was.

I'd also brought in a lilting little countrified thing called "Girl Growing Up" that had been inspired by my then-13-year-old niece. The plan was to have Lee play mandolin, but when he heard the song, he asked, "Do I hear a minor chord in there?"  We confirmed that, yes, the minor-6 chord was heard throughout (think Ben E King's "Stand By Me" if you don't know what this means; that song's iconic bass line feeds off the minor-6 alternating with the main chord). "Then you'd better get someone who can really play," he said with a twinkle.  "You don't want me! I'll play tambourine!"  There was laughter all around, Levon picked up the tambourine, and in the end, there's no mandolin on the track at all, just a brilliant baritone guitar line played by Marshall Crenshaw.

Afterward, Levon and I walked down to the lake with a few of his dogs and talked about fishing for catfish. Another wonderful, memorable moment.

My thanks also to James Smith, the assistant engineer who photographed us that day, and to chief engineer Justin Guip, who made it all sound easy and great. I cannot imagine the level of sadness that everyone at Levon Helm Studios (the home of his Midnight Ramble) must today be experiencing.  Truly, truly, truly we have lost one of the greats.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Spring 2012: Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction and Carnegie Hall

Spring 2012 arrived with a lovely mid-March night at Carnegie Hall as I took the stage with Ian Hunter (I appear on 4 tracks on Ian's yet-to-be-named upcoming 2012 release...) for a tribute to the Rolling Stones' Hot Rocks LP. Steve Earle, Rosanne Cash, Marianne Faithful, Jackson Browne, Taj Mahal, Ronnie Spector, Rickie Lee Jones and others joined in. Then it was back on the road with Christine Ohlman & Rebel Montez for a series of New England dates, and on to the 2012 Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Induction, this year back in its home city of Cleveland. I can say nothing less than that the inducation weekend was magical (HBO broadcasts highlights in a special set to air May 5). For a music historian like me, the first-time-ever (beginning what will become a yearly tradition) induction of backup bands--The Crickets, Blue Caps, Famous Flames, Miracles, Midnighters--was so very moving, with Claudette Rogers' elegant acceptance for the Miracles being the highlight. There was Freddie King's induction (in the "Early Influences" category), and the smoldering vintage footage of him that they showed during the speech by Billy Gibbons and Dusty Baker, after which Derek Trucks, Billy, and Joe Bonamassa did the honors. The Faces/Small Faces ruled the night ("All or Nothing" a particularly good choice) with Mick Hucknall of SImply Red standing in on vocals and a heartfelt induction by Little Steven VanZandt. Donovan (inducted by John Mellencamp), Guns and Roses (Green Day inducted), The Beastie Boys, with a poignant acceptance letter by Adam Yauch after Chuck D and LL Cool J's induction speech (The Roots and Kid Rock stood in for a perfectly-manic performance), and The Red-Hot Chili Peppers (Chris Rock inducted) completed the list of performers. Paul Shaffer wrote the most wonderful, Spector-esque arrangement of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" to honor Don Kirshner, who published that song and so many others, and who was inducted under the category named for Ahmet Ertegun .....I was so honored to sing on that with Darlene Love, with my NYC Hit Squad compadre Ricky Byrd (a 2012 nominee himself, with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts) standing alongside in the "Rock and Roll Choir". Finally, three pivotal engineers--Glyn Johns, Tom Dowd, and Cosimo Matassa--were inducated by Robbie Robertson. They brought Cosimo out in a wheelchair and he beamed while his grandson spoke on his behalf. SO moving and wonderful for a devotee of New Orleans music like me. 5,000 fans thronged the sold-out Cleveland Public Hall. Props to HBO, who of course did everything right and ramped it up in terms of how that venerable, historic rock and roll stage (once home to the Beatles) was dressed. The vintage footage and photographs were projected onto a gigantic scrim at the back of the stage..just beautiful. Many, many MANY industry were squeezed into 100 tables on the floor of the hall. Again, up popped my friend Ian's name, being invoked (although he is not yet inducted, nor is Mott the Hoople...the Hall should rectify that) at the very end of Hall President Terry Stewart's opening speech: "In the words of the immortal Ian Hunter, 'Cleveland Rocks!' " We of The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame House Band (Liberty DeVitto, Jeff Carlisi, Jeff Adams, Rob Arthur, Jimmy Hall, Ricky Byrd and me) tore it up the night before at the pre-induction Gala with our very great special guest Felix Cavaliere (he killed). Darlene Love, Cleveland's native son Michael Stanley, and Dave Wakeling also stopped by, and our NYC compadres Will Lee and Felicia Collins got up and did their thing, too. And then morning-of, we got called for a last-minute vocal rundown in the dusty, cement-strewn basement of the Cleveland Hall. The door opened and Carole King came sweeping into the room for an impromptu twirl through "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," as she picked out the string chart single-note (on a beat-up Fender Rhodes), playing along with Paul Shaffer on the song that would be performed later that evening before that sold-out crowd with Darlene Love. What a lovely moment. Ricky and I hoofed it upstairs to watch the Faces camera-block. Again, a lovely, rockin' moment, so filled with history. Byrd knew Marriott well. It was emotional in the best kind of way. The weekend was filled with those, and I counted myself a very lucky little rock and roll Beehive Queen, makin' the scene!