There were approximately 40 acts at last year’s Newport Folk Festival. Amy Helm was my favorite among them, and given the quality of the lineup, that was quite an achievement. So I really looked forward to an opportunity to see her and her wonderful band again, and that chance finally came at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, MA last weekend.
First a word about the Narrows. I’ve had the opportunity to go to a number of shows there since I moved to RI a couple of years ago. It has quickly become one of my favorite venues anywhere. The space on the third floor of an old New England mill building holds 300 people, and features great sound, and a positive, family style vibe.
So one of my favorite performers in one of my favorite venues. That’s something to look forward to, and the experience lived up to the expectation on every level. Amy has a superb band, which features Byron Isaacs on guitar and bass, Justin Guip on drums and percussion, and Daniel Littleton on guitar. Like Amy, Isaacs and Guip are also members of the Levon Helm Band.
The first highlight of the evening came when the band took on the Ann Peebles classic “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” and more than did it justice. Bob Dylan’s “Meet Me in the Morning” stood out, as did a version of Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand.”
The song I was most looking forward to hearing was one that had reduced me to tears at Newport last summer, and it had the same effect this time. The stunning “Roll Away” was written by Amy and Byron Isaacs, and in light of the death of Levon Helm last year it packs a powerful emotional punch. If anything, the poignant song is reminiscent of the work of Amy’s mother Libby Titus Fagen.
Isaacs took the lead vocal for a song “Calvary.” It’s a song that he wrote, although in introducing the song he pointed out that when Levon Helm sang one of your songs it was no longer yours. Levon’s version certainly was definitive, perhaps my favorite of all of his solo recordings, but Isaacs did just fine with it.
“This is a song that my grandfather taught to my father, and my father taught to me,” said Amy Helm by way of introduction for “Little Birds.” Later came a cover of what seemed like “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” but was in fact a variant of that song called “I’m Wise” as originally recorded by Ruth Durand in 1956. A wonderful version of “When the Circus Comes” by Los Lobos came near the end of the set.
The band came back from a well-deserved encore and reduced the room to a puddle of tears with a heartbreaking rendition of The Band’s “It Makes No Difference.” It was a fitting conclusion to the evening because while there is no doubt that Amy Helm and her band are on a mission to keep her father’s music alive, she is a compelling performer in her own right, with a bright future ahead of her.