Amy Helm’s Soulful Strangers
Amy Helm and the Handsome Strangers
Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival
For most of her adult life, she’s been the Dirt Farmer’s daughter, standing in the massive shadow of her revered father, Levon. But this time around, Amy Helm shines so brightly under the spotlight that the only shadows you can see are the ones trailing her image. Since releasing her 2015 solo debut, Didn’t It Rain, Amy has been buoyed on tour by a band of Handsome Strangers. The last batch of Strangers, bassist Adam Minkoff, guitarist Daniel Littleton and drummer David Berger, were a versatile bar band, but this new group sounds like a cadre of seasoned soul vets.
The set list starts out as it did last year, with the Sister Rosetta Tharpe-inspired title cut from her last album. But this version is entirely different, with a Delta salsa feel, swamp gospel as interpreted by the new Strangers. And just like last time out, they segue into “Sky’s Falling,” another cut from Didn’t It Rain. Once again, this one gets a makeover, to snaky Memphis soul. But instead of another segue into Ann Peebles “I Can’t Stand the Rain,” the New Handsomes introduce a new one, “Cotton and the Cane.” Helm addresses the crowd for the first time, telling them this is the new band’s first venue and she’s a bit nervous, even though they’ve put in hours and hours of practice. They were still perfecting harmonies and tempo in Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can” minutes before showtime, Helm standing on the drum riser with the Strangers huddled tightly around her around running down their parts. But there was no need for nervousness. This is a tight a bunch as Helm has ever had gathered round her, and that’s saying something.
The crowd was with her from the get-go, the laid-back bunch of free spirits giving her a lusty cheer when she announced that “We brought some herbal cigarettes to smoke,” before adding a bit of a disclaimer: “I should say some herbal tea,” she said, giggling. Amy kicks it off on mandolin, but when new Stranger Cindy Cashdollar, 5-time Grammy winner and 8 year Asleep At the Wheel vet, slides in on lap steel, she turns up the heat, sailing off into the stratsophere.
The crowd was sparse when they started, but as soon as the first few notes floated across the grounds, revelers began pouring in. The Shakori Hills Grassoroots Festival of Music and Dance is a hippie’s dream, a non-profit co-founded by Donna the Buffalo guitarist Jeb Puryear’s brother Jordan and run by a volunteer board of directors. The 72-acre site in the wilds of Pittsboro promotes a festival vibe as laid back as one can be without falling over backwards. Donna the Buffalo is the anchor band for this jam/roots festival as well as its sister venue, the 26 year old Finger Lakes Grassroots Festival in Trumansburg, N.Y.
It’s barely 40 degrees out here at showtime at 9 on a Friday night, and the wind gusts make it feel like 30, but there are bare-chested celebrants whooping it up in front of the stage. There are dances being demonstrated here not seen publicly since ’67’s summer of love, long-haired folks making moves that would cause the farmer neighbors to believe in demonic possession had they come across these boys and girls cavorting thusly in their nearby fields.
But it’s a fun experience, the participants rowdy but polite, and there’s plenty of room to stretch out and enjoy the music up close, or, since there are no seats unless you bring ’em, just sprawled out on a blanket under the stars.
By the time Amy and the Strangers get to “I Can’t Stand The Rain,” guitarist Mark Marshall dusting Allen Toussaint’s original with nasty, low-down Memphis style soul with an Al Green feel, she’s got a sea of converts howling and hopping along.
“They must have been here before,” one fan says as the Strangers kick off yet another rain song, “7 Days Of Rain,” alluding to the fact that in its early years, the Shakori Hills site, little more than reclaimed fields, got so much rain that a convoy of tractors were in constant motion pulling festival goer’s vehicles out of the mud. Amy undampens the tune, pouring out buckloads of soul.
“We’re gonna go back to Levon and the Hawks’ catalog,” Helm says, introducing “She Don’t Love You.” The ’66 original, “He Don’t Love You,” has a Motown feel, but the Strangers and Amy take it deeper and harder. Cashdollar and Marshall sling the lead back and forth seamlessly, but Helm’s the standout on this one, stalking the stage like Tina Turner, unleashing torrents of blistering, old-school soul firmly anchored by the rhythm section of bassist Jacob Silver and drummer Moses Patrou.
“Dad played on some songs,” Helm says introducing “Sing To Me, from the Didn’t It Rain album, adding ‘My dad is Levon,” which brings down the house. “I got to play with him on this one, and I always think of him when I sing it.” Amy turns it into a hymn, turning in a Mavis Staples worthy-gospel performance dripping with soul.
Allen Toussaint is represented once again with “Yes We Can,” the ’74 Pointer Sisters’ slinky funk classic. But there’s a moral to the story as well. “Every single American should learn the words to this song,” Helm says. “It’s a song about unity and hope- we need it.” The band really crackles on this one, Cashdollar and Marshal throwin’ down hard, Amy shakin’ and tremblin’ like a backslid sinner on judgment day.
Amy and the Strangers rip through Bob Dylan’s “Meet Me In the Mornin’,” Helm shoveling out great heaps of sassy blews. Cashdollar and Marshall are at it again. Marshall rips off a fiery solo and steps back satisfied, then Cashdollar, wry grin on her face, steps forward and answers back, shooting out bolts of greased lightning.
“Here’s a song my father taught to me,” Helm says, introducing “Gloryland.” “I only got to sing it with him a handful of times. It’s for everyone with someone waiting on the other side.” Helm, bassist Silver and drummer Patrou gather gather round a old fashioned-looking condenser mic for some tight, family style harmony.
Sam Cooke’s “Good News” closes the set, this version faster and funkier than the previous Strangers’ version, Helm working herself into a churchy frenzy, bouncin’, shakin’ and testifyin.’
The encore is rock and roll gospel, Delaney And Bonnie’s “Only You Know And I Know.” Drummer Patrou shows off considerable soul chops covering Delaney’s vocal, and Amy knocks it out of the park covering Bonnie’s formidable tonsil-warping excursions with shimmering, righteous soul. Marshall is tearing off licks like Clapton on the version from the ’69 Delaney and Bonnie and Friends with Eric Clapton tour. Cashdollar drops in for some glorious guitar harmony that has an Allman Bros. feel.
It’s an impressive debut, a rebirth for Helm, from farmer’s daughter to soul diva. But no matter how high she soars, her feet will still be firmly planted in the muddy roots of her daddy’s soil, his spirit still shining through.
(All photos by Grant Britt)