With a smile and a wave Amy Helm and The Handsome Strangers lit into their Berkely set at full speed, no preamble, no slow warming up to a boil. No, Helm and company -- Daniel Littleon on guitar; David Berger on drums; and Alan Hampton on bass -- went from zero to full-on groove in the blink of an eye, transforming the Berkeley venue’s mood into something reminiscent of a juke joint, gospel revival, rock show and Mardi Gras celebration all at once.
To say Helm and her band of merry, extremely accomplished, music makers has range is an understatement. To say that Helm -- touring her debut solo release Didn't It Rain after years spent collaborating in both the heralded band Ollabelle, and her famously revered father Levon’s Ramble Band (as well as a lifetime surrounded by the best Americana and roots musicians in the land) -- is an artist in full bloom is more accurate.
All those years of storied Midnight Rambles could be felt on the Freight stage, as if Helm and the Handsome Stranger had never paused in their playing, and had somehow been magically transported from their home venue in Woodstock, NY, to Berkeley, mid-song.
Theirs was a roadhouse version of Allen Toussaint's tune "You're Going To Miss Me"; all but Berger gathered around a single mic for a cover of Springsteen's "Atlantic City"; and Helm added her mandolin to the heady mix for "I Can Feel It."
Few artists ‘debut’ with such a wealth of experience under their wings, and thank the music gods Helm chose to eventually record and tour her own project. Didn't It Rain took her five years to complete, during which time she became a mother and lost both a brother and father. The wait, and extra wisdom accrued, has paid off for lovers of truly authentic, musical music. Now Helm is in top form, moving to a spirited rhythm that is at once all her own while building on her father’s legacy.
Throughout the show, her stage presence was collaborative, generous and expansive, sexy, soulful and unafraid to lay it all on the line. Meanwhile, Littleton kicked out blistering solos, wringing wide-ranging sonic soundscapes from an acoustic guitar; everyone in the band breaking into extended interludes as well as contributing vocals as needed. In all, a stunning performance, exemplifying the best of live music. Catch your breath, and then catch Helm and the Handsome Strangers when you can.