(February 2023)


Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams Cook Up Smokin’ Live Set On ‘Live At Levon’s’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

By: Doug Collette

Anyone who’s had the privilege of seeing Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams on their tours in recent years will be delighted to hear Live At Levon’s. And for those who are only familiar with the duo as ancillary participants in Phil Lesh, Little Feat, and Levon Helm concerts, this slightly-shy of sixty minutes will most likely be eye (and ear) -opening.

The notable locale of the recording at the Woodstock New York studios in the early fall of 2019 only makes sense. Campbell and Williams were regular members of a troupe headed by the late drummer of The Band in his final days of roadwork (as well as the vaunted ‘Rambles’ at his barn) and the development of their own infectious presence, redolent here in a dozen tracks, compelled them to embark on a career of their own. After a pair of the extremely well-crafted studio LPs–their eponymous debut and its successor Contraband Love–a concert offering was only logical.

Yet it is anything but predictable, despite the fact it opens with Rev. Gary Davis’ “Let Us Get Together.” A staple of the duo’s stage repertoire, it’s also a frequent insertion into Hot Tuna setlists and here appears in a spirited rendition designed to invoke a spirit of community with listeners. It works as well on record as it no doubt did in front of the audience present at the intimate upstate venue.

It is not, however, the only familiar selection. A subdued acoustic arrangement John Sebastian’s “Darling Be Home Soon” crops up near the mid-point, while Johnny Cash’s “Big River” appears as the penultimate cut; each in its own way serves its purpose, the former to supply a soothing reverie to the proceedings, the latter to offer a rousing send-off before the finale of Campbell’s original “It Ain’t Gonna Be A Good Night.”

No doubt meant ironically in its placement as the closer, it’s evidence of the multi-instrumentalist growth as a songwriter (a stint in Dylan’s band no doubt gave him some insight into that art!). Likewise, the ominous air of “Angel of Darkness” is an ideal foil for the upbeat singalong that occurs during “Yeah Yeah Yeah;” credit for the savvy pacing of the numbers here goes to the author as the album’s producer. The dynamics here are impeccable.

Campbell was equally savvy to tap drummer Justin Guip to mix the culls from two nights’ shows (Dave McNair is also quite expert in his mastering, as befits previous work with the likes of Derek Trucks, Charlie Hunter and Los Lobos). Comparably adept at his kit on the brisk “I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow,” for example, the once and future drummer for present-day electric Tuna conjures rhythms that fit hand-in-glove with Jess Murphy’s basslines. Meanwhile, both musicians leave plenty of space for Brian Mitchell’s keyboards: the audio is at once spacious and dense, radiating a warmth intrinsic to the dynamic between the two principals.

Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams have never lent themselves to easy comparisons to classic duos of the country genre–Porter Wagoner/Dolly Parton or Tammy Wynette/George Jones. Nor do they display many overt similarities to a twosome of more recent vintage, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Still, their talents are arguably as complementary yet even more varied.

To wit, while Williams’ ethereal yet sturdy voice is the personal spotlight on (the autobiographical?) “Success,” Campbell’s prominent steel guitar there leads naturally (if somewhat circuitously) into the electric picking on the instrumental of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” Mitchell also shines there too via his jaunty handling of an accordion, so it’s hardly a great leap to “Old Dangerfield:” the inclusion of this fiddle-dominated romp only illustrates how deceptively versatile is this quintet.

When Larry and Teresa sing together on “When I Stop Loving You,” his matching of her dulcet tones not only depicts his maturation as a vocalist over the years but also how the mesh of their voices further corroborates their professional and personal bond. Likewise, the classy and evocative graphics design accurately suggests what resides on the CD inside the slimline package. Live At Levon’s is Americana music in the true sense of the word and while the roots thereof are obvious, the sound is never derivative or imitative.