Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams
Live at Levon’s!
(Royal Potato Family)
4 out of 5 stars
By: Hal Horowitz
The exclamation point is appropriate.
Levon Helm’s studio in Woodstock, New York is the perfect venue for the married duo of veteran multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, and about a hundred others) and Teresa Williams to record a live album. After all, Campbell led the house band there for over a decade, fronting Helm’s infamous Midnight Ramble shows before he passed in 2012.
There’s a vibe to the location that can be felt as the twosome, along with a three-piece backing band, roll through a dozen tracks in front of an appreciative audience culled from two shows in September 2019. Campbell and Williams had just finished a cross-country tour, documented in the ten-part television series It Was the Music, and were in peak form for this gig.
Campbell is in especially fine form as he pulls out his fiddle for a rollicking five-minute instrumental of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass classic “Old Dangerfield,” playing with the passion and precision of a guy on fire. He also lights up on pedal steel for Louis Prima’s frisky “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” as Williams gets suggestive with the double entendre lyrics and Brian Mitchell brings the New Orleans stomp on accordion, mixing Texas swing with Louisiana swamp. They go country for a rowdy version of Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” allowing Campbell to display his twang-heavy guitar skills, giving pianist Mitchell a solo worthy of Jerry Lee Lewis. Williams rips into Loretta Lynn’s weepy broken marriage ballad “Success” (you have no time to love me anymore/Since fame and fortune knocked upon our door) as Campbell’s pedal steel brings the tears.
But it’s the high-stepping instrumental version of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” where the guitarist pulls out the stops. He twists the jazz standard through country, Cajun, rock, and surf changes in a brain-altering performance that establishes his enormous talents. The band cranks it out behind him, each taking short, taut solos for six minutes you’ll immediately want to play again.
They rock on the swampy duet of “Surrender to Love” and the previously unreleased “Angel of Darkness,” the latter a co-write with touring partner Hot Tuna’s Jorma Kaukonen. Williams brings the gospel on a heart-pounding, cautionary closer “It Ain’t Gonna Be a Good Night,” ending the show on a raw, intense note. Perhaps we could have done without a rote version of John Sebastians’ “Darling Be Home Soon,” a timeless tune that pays tribute to one of Campbell’s first influences and allows Williams to display the sweeter side of her voice, but one that has been over-recorded. And at just an hour, there was room to include some Levon or Band songs, a missed opportunity especially considering the spirits inhabiting the venue.
Regardless, this is a jubilant show, captured in stunning clarity and perfectly mixed by drummer Justin Guip. It’ll make your life at least a little better … and isn’t that what a great live album should do?