By the time Tom Hanks announced that The Band had received a Lifetime Achievement Award during last Sunday's 50th Grammy Awards, its drummer/singer Levon Helm had already won his own - "Best Traditional Folk Album" for
, his first solo in 25 years.
For the legendary Helm, 67, these triumphs are a rainbow at the end of what could have been a bleak finale: Helm's landmark studio, The Barn, had burned. And throat cancer had stripped away a hearty part of his throaty Arkansan cackle.
Yet, there was Helm with his large band on Friday night at the Electric Factory, shuffling behind a drum kit, strumming a mandolin, packing the place with fanatics old and young. Opening for Helm and his "Midnight Ramble" showcase were his daughter Amy's ensemble, Ollabelle, and Philly's rollicking Dr. Dog.
So great was the occasion that Electric Factory Concerts honcho Larry Magid stepped onstage to introduce Helm - a rarity indeed.
Even rarer was the sense of history than ran through Helm's set.
Not just because Helm - grinning like a Cheshire cat with nine lives - ably tackled Band classics such as a rugged "Rag Mama Rag" and a swelling "Ophelia" with its marching-band élan. Or that Helm's large ensemble featured ex-Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell, a four-man horn ensemble
harmonica treasure Little Sammy Davis singing bruised love songs such as "Fannie Mae."
Rather, it was because Helm presented the dark depths and ever-loving sweetness of aged-American country, blues and bluegrass.
And Helm is still a formidable rhythm master - tucking into the woozy rocking blues of "Mail Train."
His once-ample singing voice might have been a coughing croon and bark. But Helm sounded uncautious and tender whether tackling a hand-clapping cover of Johnnie & Jack's "Ashes of Love" or Springsteen's "Atlantic City."
The latter - with its fiddle softly fluttering and its accordion at full wheeze - showed Helm's band at its finest.