Watching Amy Helm perform is like witnessing an exorcism. But in her case, happy little demons come tumbling out to play, cavorting around her ankles, keeping her bobbing and weaving with the throbbing pulse of her music. She’s in a church tonight, but that doesn’t inhibit her, or her musical devils. She’s possessed, but content with it, the sounds taking control of her, body and soul.
Helm and her band the Handsome Strangers are holding a one night revival service in the middle of the week at the former St. Andrews Church in Wilmington, N.C. Now known as the Brooklyn Arts Center, the 120-year-old sanctuary with its 60 foot ceiling swooshes the sound around like a gargling giant, spewing it back out in fine droplets that penetrate the skin, baptizing the congregation with a soulful, gospel fervor.
Helm comes out roaring like a blast furnace on “Didn’t It Rain,” a ’20s gospel standard interpreted by Sister Rosetta Tharpe in’48, Mahalia Jackson in ’54 and even taken a whack at by Tom Jones in 2010. Helm’s version sounds Sheryl Crow-ish, but with more oomph, Helm bustin’ loose at the seams over the Strangers’ Latin- flavored reggae arrangement. It’s the title cut from her latest release, which she’ll feature tonight almost in its entirety. That segues into Ann Peeble’s “Cant Stand The Rain,” Helm raising Ann Peebles’ funky soul to another level, wailing gospel set to the thinly disguised melody of Sam And Dave’s soul classic, “I’m A Soul Man.”
The Handsome Strangers are a hellacious bar band that bring it hard and nasty but can drop it down to a whisper and take control of any room’s attention and respect at any volume. Guitarist Daniel Littleton is mesmerizing, playing most of the set on a beat-up acoustic that looks like Willie Nelson might have sat on it for a whole tour. But the sounds Littelton gets out of it are more what you’d expect from U2’s The Edge and Jimi Hendrix. What makes it even more mind-altering is that Littelton bears an uncanny resemblance to Dave Matthews. You have to keep shaking your head and saying, “No, no, it just can’t be.”
But Littleton dispels any Matthews hangover afterimages as soon as his fingers hit the strings, plucking out muscular Bakersfield honky-tonk licks on “Heat Lightning,” laying down church bell gospel chords on “Rescue Me.”
Amy provides the chop on electric mandola for “Bye Bye Love,” wailing high and lonesomely on the rollicking mountainous melody. She looks petite and fluffy, but can belt it out like a bulldozer. “Sing To Me” sounds like a Dolly Parton-flavored Appalachian hymn, Helm moaning celestially over Littelton’s churchy folk strings.
She’s opening for Anders Osborne tonight, so the crowd is a bit loud, but quietens right down when Helm tells them that this is a very quiet mic, as bassist Adam Minkoff and Littleton gather round a condenser mic center stage with Helm for some gorgeous family style harmony on Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” It’s especially touching because it recalls Levon’s magnificent performance of it captured live at MerleFest in ’08. But this version is a bit different, transformed from bluegrass to a second line strut with by the addition of a bass drum to the mix.
The Handsome Strangers sound like a family band. Littelton contributes to the songwriting with Helm, and drummer David Berger‘s heartbeat keeps the band pumping jauntily along.
Helm and the Strangers totally transform Little Richard’s “Slippin and a Slidin’” to hellbilly throwdown that Littleton rips to shreds, then Berger strips down to a solo skittering backbeat before Helm comes back in and rocks it out country style.
“That was a Tina Turner song,” Helm announces after a tonsil stretching exercise on Turner’s “Movin’ On.”
Bob Dylan’s “Meet Me In The Morning” sends Littleton into a full blown psychedelic fit, head buried in the speakers, guitar screaming with feedback as he tries to resurrect Hendrix.
Helm got the crowd to quiet down once again for another condenser mic gathering on “Gloryland,” and it’s a stunner. The three part harmony is so gorgeous it brings tears to your eyes, Minkoff reaching up to gloryland at the end for some shimmering grace notes.
The Strangers go back to church for the closer, but this time the worshiping is of the jump up and down variety. Sam Cooke’s “Good News” is a secular song, but he’s just switched a heavenly homecoming for his beloved’s return. Helm and company are pretty damn excited about it, ripping along at a breakneck pace, Littelton attacking his guitar with the frantic brush strokes of a mandolin player, Helm hollerin’ and a-cryin’, jumpin’ out of her skin with the joy of spreading the good news.
It was a blessing to get to see Amy’s daddy perform ’round these parts, and it’s a great pleasure to see his daughter carrying on his tradition with her own special twist on it. She told the crowd she was impressed with how friendly folks were round here and how much she liked the food: “Been eatin’ a lot of fried chicken,” she said with a big grin. Wellsir, if that’s what it takes to get you back among us, just let us know when and we’ll whomp up a wheelbarrow full of friendly fried chicken for your return visit. Just make it soon- we’re already cravin’ more.