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by Haven James
Artist: Levon Helm & The Crowmatix
Saturday night was one of those nights, one of those Woodstock nights that makes life in this hamlet worth it. Levon Helm & The Crowmatix appeared at the Tinker Street Cafe to a packed house of devoted fans. No special guests, and none needed--the six-piece unit cranked out one long set that mixed traditional Band classics with Crowmatix rock and R&B standards.
Helm was looking good this night, clearly up for playing (and in much improved health from our encounter with him last summer at Joe's in New Paltz, which turned out to be a pre-pneumonia gig and a scary one at that). We can very happily report that Lee is back in the saddle, full twinkle in his eye, and playing and singing in all-star fashion. Probably the only Arkansas celebrity holding fast to the no-Monica, none-of-the-time stance, Helm was in rare form and glad to be there for the home team.
The Crowmatix opened the show with a round robin of tunes that established why they've become Helm's band of choice these days. Jimmy Eppard, sporting a new (old) Les Paul Special and matching black Stratocaster, held the guitar post on stage right. There must be some sound or style Epp can't do, but whatever that might be remains a mystery. Hard-driving and lyrical, his playing set the front-line melody that kicked the show right into go mode with no warm up necessary.
Jimmy and Butch Dener had reset the stage layout at the Tinker, putting the bass amp deep in the corner with the two drum kits flanking off toward the window side of the room. This gave Mike "Elmo" Dunn the prime spot to let his Dan Electro copper-flec bass unify the moves. Partnered with Randy Ciarlante on the main drum rig, rhythms were not in question as Ranch and Elmo struck a strong beat.
Sharing the melody line, the Professor (Aaron "Louie" Hurwitz) was also in rare form Saturday, flashing cascades of layered chords and runs across ivories of the B-3. As co-producer of both the Band and the Crowmatix, Louie held a strong rudder on the rushing current of the music. And standing point, stage front, Red-Hot Mama Marie Spinosa wasn't holding back the vocals, either. To say she's got pipes is only part of the story; Marie's energy infused the band and the house in preparation for the appearance of the boss.
Levon made his arrival early on in the evening and did not delay taking the stage. It was just about the only place left to stand in the room, so he must have figured why wait, he'd come to play. Going straight to the mandolin, Helm performed a number of songs off the Woodstock Records Collector Edition CD, Souvenir, including Danko's original, "Java Blues." The fact that every member of the Crowmatix sings only added to the choral impact of the tunes. And there's something about the mix of that Gibson mandolin and Levon's voice that builds the magic and raises everything up a few notches. "Atlantic City" proved again to be one of the high points of the night as the house joined in the mantra full force.
Moving to the second drum kit, Lee stepped up the rhythms as the band broke into some of the classic rockers. Kicking off with "The Weight," and later on to "Rag Mama Rag" and "Milk Cow Boogie," Helm mixed in some harmonica to spark the familiar sound. To the delight of all, Levon left little doubt that he has any intentions of hanging up his rock 'n' roll shoes in the foreseeable future.
Look for Levon and the Crowmatix to be back sooner than later this time around. There's a lot of activity going on at Lee's studio, and though "Last Train From Memphis" was one of the new songs they played Saturday night, this definitely was not the last stop.
With news of the Tinker Street's dynamic duo of Mitnick and Sandell opening the Lake for the summer season, the presence of a larger venue will make this kind of event more practical on a variety of levels. A number of folks seldom seen came out of the woodwork for this show and hopefully, with a new and improved juke joint in town, Woodstock will get back to being a little more like Woodstock in the coming months. For the first time in years, every restaurant and club from Carambola (the Getaway for the truly ancient) all the way up 212 to the Bearsville Theater will be open for business. Maybe there is hope.
Woodstock Records sports a catalog of local hero records including Levon Helm & the Crowmatix, Rick Danko Live, and more. Most of their products can be ordered through Rhythms in Woodstock or directly from:
Woodstock Records PO Box 158 Woodstock, NY 12498-0158
Haven James has been a consistent contributor to the Music & Arts scene around the Hudson Valley and beyond for almost a decade through his column, Werewolves of Woodstock, published weekly in the Woodstock Times
A writer, musician, philanthropist, and Mac addict; he lives reclusively, high atop Overlook Mountain with his son and a menagerie of animals, both wild and domesticated. Though currently unmarried, rumors abound as to his intimate relationships with Madonna, Sandra Bernhardt, and Eli Bach; though he insists these notions to be pure hearsay. His identity has remained a mystery to all but the closest of friends as he often travels in disguise and appears unannounced and undercover at concerts and venues in a dedicated effort to get the real story.
Posted on March 12, 1998
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