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Last Night: Levon Helm and Ray LaMontagne at Verizon Theatre

Levon Helm, Ray LaMontagne
Verizon Theatre, Grand Prairie
November 11, 2010

Better than: watching my old Rick Danko instructional bass VHS tapes.

I don't know what's wrong with some people.

We've all been in a situation where we go to a show to see only one artist on a bill, and either get there late or leave early to miss him.

But, listen, when one of the other artists is a national treasure -- a living legend -- you stick around after the set break, if only just to say you saw him.

Nonetheless, some Ray LaMontagne fans -- the minority, mind you, but some -- decided to just leave after his set at the Verizon Theatre last night. They didn't return for Levon Helm.

Me? I just don't get it.

That's not to take anything away from Ray LaMontagne. His set showed why so many tickets were bought in the first place, and the crowd greeted every song with rapturous applause.

LaMontagne, looking like he stepped right off of the cover of The Band's sophomore album, delivered his set of folky songs and soulful country ballads like he was the headliner. His excellent band followed his lead, creating a mood that was reverential and at times almost spiritual, which lent itself to LaMontagne's soulful vocals perfectly.

He even got an encore, during which he played his biggest hit "Trouble," as well as the cover tunes "Mama Tried" and "I've Forgotten More Than You'll Ever Know." And even though he claimed to be so hopped up on cold medicine that he couldn't "feel the ground," LaMontagne and his band lived within those songs like they were his own.

Then it was time for Levon.

If anyone was expecting a Band cover band, they were disappointed. What they got instead was something just shy of a good, old-fashioned, Southern music revue. Oh, sure, those classics from The Band were there. In fact, the set opened with a one-two-three sequence of "Shape I'm In," "Long Black Veil", and "Ophelia," one of the few songs to feature Levon's legendary voice.

Fifty years on the road, and a bout of throat cancer years ago, have clearly taken their toll on one of America's most distinctive voices. While he still sounds strong, if older, on his excellent recent albums, his voice is thin and not as reliable live. And while his body looks thin and frail, his drumming is as solid and authoritative as it has ever been.

The rest of the set was full of gospel, rock 'n' roll, and blues covers, including "Deep Ellum Blues," which various members took turns singing lead to take the pressure off of Levon.

Make no mistake, though: This was not some excuse to drag a poor old man around the country for a payday. This is a band of road tested cats who put on one hell of a show -- like when the horn section left their riser and marched around the stage New Orleans-style without microphones or anything but Levon's rock-solid timekeeping for accompaniment.

Unquestionably, though, the evening's highlights were Ray LaMontagne joining Levon's band for an utterly breathtaking "Tears of Rage," the set-closer "The Weight" and the encore "I Shall Be Released," during which everyone stood, and dozens of audience members in the pit area left their seats to approach the stage like it was a church service.

It's great to see that after all this time, Levon Helm still doesn't want to hang up his rock 'n' roll shoes.

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And, when he can still put on a show like this, why should he?

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
I became aware of Ray LaMontagne along with everyone else when his Trouble album came out back in 2004. But I haven't really followed his career too closely since then. I thought, at the time, that I got his bit -- great voice, moving and sincere folk tunes -- and I moved on. His set on Thursday was a strong reminder that I need to revisit the man and his music.

Random Note: Due to unforeseen circumstances beyond my control, I arrived at Verizon Theater late and missed the opening set by The Secret Sisters. However, they re-visited the stage so often during the other two sets it was evident that the buzz their recent T-Bone Burnett produced album has received is legit. These girls are plenty talented.

By The Way: As strong as the music was, it wasn't a perfect evening. The theater itself provided the only weakness. The Verizon Theatre is a great place to see a show, but it can borderline on sterile. And, on this night in particular, something about the way the bands were mixed created distance between the performers and the audience. It felt like the band was a mile away because the sound lacked a certain presence in spite of the spirited performances.

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