One of the first things apparent about Amy Helm -- beyond the roots-rocking singer/songwriter’s rich heritage and her raw, silken baritone -- on the day after her first residency date at MilkBoy Center City is that neither she nor her band cared about the freezing cold.
“Nope, I’m a tried-and-true Woodstocker,” Helm said with a laugh Thursday about the Upstate New York home and barn-studio complex she runs in the name of her late father, The Band’s Levon Helm. “I have many winters in my bones. Everybody in the band has the same stock -- load-in, do the gig.”
This time, the gig is an every-Wednesday showcase of new material being road-tested for Helm’s next album, several songs of which had more of a jazzy sophistication than her debut, 2015’s country-bluesy Didn't It Rain.
Mention that such worldliness and panache could stem from the influence of her mother (chanteuse Libby Titus) and stepfather (Donald Fagen, whose solo work and Steely Dan reunions benefited from Helm’s backing vocals), and Amy has yet another answer.
“I’m reticent to credit anyone but [current bandmate] Cindy Cashdollar for such sophistication,” Helm said of the pedal steel Dobro player whose family was one of Woodstock’s first settlers and whose relationship with Lady Helm commenced through Papa Helm.
“First time I met her, I turned 21 and Dad brought me into the studio for my birthday to record four songs. He brought Cindy, who had this bad-ass vibe, and [The Band’s] Rick Danko; I was nervous, didn’t have my sea legs. My dad taught me the songs on the way to the studio.”
Thrown into the pop-music pool headfirst to swim for herself -- to take a chance, improvisationally -- is what she learned from Levon; by watching him operate and by coproducing his multiartist Midnight Rambles get-togethers of the early 2000s.
“Courage. Spontaneity. That’s what I learned from him. So did every musician who played with him. Dad was fiercely loyal to the song, fearless when chasing it, and taught everyone to do the same. He put no weight in knowing songs inside-out or even having played them before; he just jumped right in.”
After a lifetime of Manhattan studio vocal work (Sesame Street, Mercury Rev, Trans-Siberian Orchestra), she formed the folkie Ollabelle the same year she cocreated the Rambles.
“Yeah, that was a mess,” she laughs. “But like our first studio session, hitting the pool fast made me learn to swim hard.”
Through Ollabelle, Helm held extended residencies in Philadelphia to develop its songs in winter 2003-04. Why here? Our sports fans might be mean curs, but our music fans have sophisticated critical tastes.
“You guys have good ears,” she said. “Philly is as discerning as it is embracing. That challenge ups my game.”
So did going solo in her 40s, rather than during her younger years. Pragmatically, she believes that move came at the right time, that going solo then was intuitively correct and led directly to the songs she wrote or cowrote with Byron Issacs for her 2015 debut album. “Going solo in my 40s -- it wasn’t weird. It was different.”
Now, she’s spending her next two Wednesdays within the intimate confines of MilkBoy’s second floor (1100 Chestnut St.), testing out new original compositions, rejiggerng arrangements of her older tracks (such as the smooth “Gentling Me”), epic rock classics, and recently written songs such as the rumbling “Cotton and the Cane,” the balming “Seven Days of Rain,” as well as The Band’s huckle-bucking “Acadian Driftwood” and a righteous take on Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
In a tight leather jacket and tighter jeans, Helm -- with Cashdollar and Co. raging and chilling in the toasty, smoky room -- roared through songs about motherhood, fictional oddball characters, loss, her own childhood, and more in a test of what would or could make it to the next residency, let alone her forthcoming album, due in 2018.
“I’m not looking for my next album to be radically different than my first. Then again, I’m not not looking for it to be different. It’s more organic than that. We’re just testing things out and seeing what the audience -- and us, more importantly -- best react to and work well with."
Does Helm know yet what songs will make it into the next round? “No,” she says with a hearty laugh. “Ask me next Wednesday and I’ll tell you if those songs got anywhere. Or come see for yourself.”