Live review: John Prine, Levon Helm @ Red Rocks AmphitheatreBy Candace Horgan | June 16th, 2009 | No Comments »
John Prine, Levon Helm and their respective bands dished up a hot night of music at a chilly Red Rocks on Saturday. Photos by Brian Carney.
As I exchanged high fives with another woman standing near me as John Prine started playing “Paradise,” I found myself meditating on how musical perfection can often be best expressed in simplicity. Prine doesn’t write complicated songs; in fact, most of them follow some sort of I-IV-V chord progression. However, Prine’s unique lyrics, coupled with his sly vocal delivery, keep all his material sounding different and fresh, whether it was the sadly still-relevant “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” or the irreverent “Dear Abby.”
Prine played Red Rocks on a very chilly Saturday night in what was technically a co-headlining bill with the Levon Helm Band. Helm’s band reminded me of seeing the Lyle Lovett Large Band; they manage to make the Red Rocks stage look almost small. In addition to Helm, there were 11 other musicians onstage.
When they launched into “Ophelia” to start the evening, they sounded tight; the five-piece horn section added great texture to a lot of classic Band songs, including “Rag Mama Rag,” with a tuba solo by Howard Johnson, and “The Shape I’m In,” sung by organ player Brian Mitchell.
Helm was happy to share the vocal and musical duties. His daughter Amy, who played mandolin for much of the set, switched to the drums for “Got Me a Woman,” letting Levon step out and sing and play mandolin. Teresa Williams, who played acoustic guitar, sang a gut-wrenching version of the traditional tune “Long Black Veil,” with Levon, Amy and guitarist Larry Campbell harmonizing beautifully on the chorus.
Helm reminded me a bit of latter-day Bill Monroe, still singing in that plaintive style, though his voice has gotten more of a rasp to it since he suffered throat cancer in the ’90s. In fact, both Helm and Prine seem drawn to the roots of rock, plumbing the material for new emotional depth.
Campbell and guitarist Jimmy Weider stepped out on solos during “Chest Fever,” and Prine joined in on the set-closing version of the Band classic “The Weight,” singing two of the verses.
Whereas Helm populated the stage with musicians, Prine was much lower key, joined by only Dave Jacques on bass and Jason Wilber on electric guitar; all three wore jackets and ties onstage, projecting a sort of classic (yet outlaw) country vibe. Prine himself seemed to ape Elvis Presley’s out-of-control leg shaking at times during his set, while Wilber added a beautiful country twang on a lot of his solos, shining early on “Picture Show.”
Prine’s fans had a curious relationship with the performer Saturday. At times, Red Rocks seemed to be a much more intimate venue, such as during “Storm Windows,” when you could practically hear a pin drop, or during “Lake Marie,” with its lyric about “sausages ssssssssizzlin,” where many in the audience screamed an exaggerated “sizz” sound right before the lyric. In fact, no matter the song, a casual glance around Red Rocks revealed people singing along and smiling.
Prine hit most of his classic songs, such as the desperate “Sam Stone,” which he performed solo, and “Angel from Montgomery,” which, much like Jimi Hendrix’s version of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” has become so associated with another performer who really does the definitive version (Bonnie Raitt, in this instance), it now sounds out of place when done by the person who wrote it.
Campbell and Weider joined Prine on the second encore, “Paradise,” with Campbell playing Cajun-style fiddle and Weider trading Telecaster-twang solos with Wilber.
Brian Carney is a Denver photographer and a regular contributor to Reverb.
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