Live at Levon's!
By: Thom Jurek
Over two nights in September 2019, Larry Campbell & Teresa Williams, after months of triumphant touring, took to the stage of the Levon Helm studio in their adopted hometown of Woodstock, New York. They had played the room often, together and apart: Campbell served in Helm's Midnight Ramble band for decades, while Williams worked as a vocalist and rhythm guitarist in the revolving ensemble. These 12 tracks offer a loose, joyous program consisting of audience favorites, covers, and unreleased songs. The duo performed with a crack band that included Jesse Murphy on bass, tuba, and harmony vocals; Brian Mitchell on keyboards, accordion, and harmonica; and veteran drummer Justin Guip. Campbell, the Django Reinhardt of American roots music, plays guitars, banjo, and pedal steel and harmonizes with Williams, who also plays rhythm guitar.
They open with a rollicking read of Rev. Gary Davis's gospel rag "Let Us Get Together," albeit through the lens of a NOLA second-line parade during Maris Gras. Williams lets the lyric burst from her lungs with brimming joy as bumping tuba, brushed drums, wailing harmonica, and Campbell's biting vamps and leads carry it home. On the gritty R&B number "Surrender to Love," the interplay between Mitchell's B-3 and Campbell's guitar melting together Delta blues, rockabilly, and Stax funk, buoy Williams' lead vocal. He sits down at the pedal steel for a country boogie read of Louis Prima's bawdy "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah" as Williams offers the wily double-entendre lyrics with warmth and humor. Campbell goes head-to-head trading fours with Mitchell's accordion in a Texas-swing interlude. "Angel of Darkness" was co-written by Campbell and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and recorded by the latter's Hot Tuna in 2011. While the original is a scorching blues-rocker, this version, with Williams' soaring lead vocal way up front, weds country, Chicago blues, Southern gospel, and garage rock. There is a deeply moving version of John Sebastian's 1965 Lovin' Spoonful hit, "Darling Be Home Soon." The grain in Williams' voice reflects longing as it expresses nearly overwhelming desire. The set's biggest surpise is the mutant cover of Duke Ellington's "Caravan." An instrumental, it showcases Campbell's command of early swing, honky tonk, zydeco, rockabilly, and even surf. Mitchell's accordion adds textural and harmonic dimensions with his accordion. The frontline duo combine vocals to deliver an Americana-cum-soul duet on the stunning "When I Stop Loving You," co-written by Campbell with William Bell. The guitarist claims the lead vocal in a choogling version of Johnny Cash's "Big River" before closing with the stomping, swampy "It Aint Gonna Be a Good Night," with Williams delivering her finest performance on the set. Live at Levon's! is not only a standout in the couple's catalog, it reveals them as the finest roots music duo since Delaney & Bonnie.