On Friday, pandemic capacity restrictions were lifted in the District of Columbia. When Amy Helm performed at The Hamilton Live, it was the first time in 16 months that venue had been fully open to present live music to eager audiences. It was a special night; the enthusiasm and love from the crowd was palpable, as most of the attendees were at their first show since early March 2020.
For Helm and her band, it was their first time back on the road and being outside of her native New York state. She acknowledged the significance of live music reopening, saying it was an honor to be playing. She joked, “Just to full capacity?” to which her bandmate Connor Kennedy quipped, “You can’t really go further than that.
To begin the set, Amy’s band played her onto the stage, where she picked up the tambourine and they launched into “Calling Home.” After the opening number, Amy set down the tambourine and sang “Rescue Me.” Picking up the mandolin on the stage, Amy followed that with “Rolling Stone.”
After “Rolling Stone,” Amy introduced her road band: Connor on lead electric guitar; Storey Littleton, her goddaughter, on acoustic rhythm guitar and vocals; Zach Djanikian on bass; and Tony Mason on drums.
Next Friday, Amy’s third solo album, What the Flood Leaves Behind, comes out, and she shared a few songs from the album with the audience, the first being “Carry it Alone,” which she cowrote with the bassist in her band. “Terminal B,” another song from the new album, is about “the almost love of my life.” One evening, under a beautiful sunset, Amy was riding the tram at the San Francisco airport when she saw a handsome stranger. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him, until he got off at a different stop from where she was going. Amy described “The Cotton and the Cane,” which she cowrote with Grammy-nominated artist Mary Gauthier, as “the first half of chapter one of part of my childhood,” a song “about drugs, the South, and survival, and being a middle-aged mom and being able to write that.”
Stream This Too Shall Light, the second studio album by Amy Helm, on Spotify:
Music is a family affair for Helm. Her father, Levon, was the legendary drummer for The Band, and he went on to have a distinguished solo career. Late in his career, Levon had throat cancer which, for a time, robbed him of his voice. During this late stage of his career, Levon held Midnight Rambles at his farm in Woodstock; they started as a rent party and grew to become almost mythical shows in the world of roots music. (Levon won three Grammy Awards in the last few years before his passing, for Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt, and Ramble at the Ryman.)
As he was starting to sing again, Levon would come out from behind the drums. Sometimes, Amy told the audience, his voice was there, and sometimes it wasn’t. Watching him make the effort, regardless of the result, was inspiring her (and to the fans who were able to attend the Midnight Rambles). One of the songs that Levon sang was Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” and Amy was joined by her son, Lee Collins, on drums for the number.
A few songs later, Amy returned to the family legacy. When she was about 15, her grandfather, James Diamond Helm, came up from Arkansas to spend the winter at Levon’s home in Woodstock. He didn’t much care for the North, and Amy was more interested in boys than spending time with her grandfather. Still, over that season, they managed to achieve a degree of bonding, and he taught her the song “Little Birds,” which Lee came back out to play tambourine on.
The set also included bluesy cover of a version of a Harlan Howard song, “He Called Me Baby” (originally “She Called Me Baby”), “Breathing,” and “Sweet Mama.” Amy finished out her set with the title track of her first solo album, Didn’t It Rain.
A standing ovation brought Amy and her band back to the stage for their encore. She began with “Verse 23” by Mike Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, the song from which she takes the title for this latest album. Introducing “Gloryland,” Amy spoke of the last year, and dedicated the song to loved ones and to those who we have lost; the band gathered around a single mic, delivering the number a capella. For the final song of the evening, she went back to her dad’s years in the Hawks, to a jammed-out version of a song sung by the late, great Richard Manuel: “She Don’t Love You, She’ll Break Your Heart.”
In another return to normalcy, after the show, fans lined up to purchase and have Amy sign copies of the new album. It was a lovely evening, and Amy’s gorgeous voice was a balm to live music fans who’ve been starving for well over a year. With this show, we all welcomed music back into our lives, celebrating togetherness and art and life.
Here are some photos of Amy Helm and her band performing at The Hamilton Live on June 11, 2021. All photos copyright and courtesy of Casey Vock.