Amy Helm has been a notable artist in her own right for a couple of decades now, but when she performs there are times she can feel her late father, The Band’s great singer/drummer Levon Helm, looking over her shoulder.
“There’s something that everyone who played with him can remember, and they called it ‘the Look’—you’d get it when you weren’t playing something just right. He was an older guy who’d paid his dues in spades, and when you saw that expression it meant, ‘Get that note back in tune!’ He was a strong influence and I feel that he keeps me on the straight and narrow, lest I stray from the rhythm section.”
Amy first appeared in New Orleans during the late ’90s, as part of the house band when Levon owned his Classic American Cafe on Decatur Street. She joined the roots band Ollabelle in 2004, and has since begun rocking in earnest, with gospel-infused vocals and open-ended jamming onstage. She worked with star producer Joe Henry on her latest album, This Too Shall Light, recorded over just a few days.
The Band is certainly on her list of influences—the album even covers “The Stones I Throw,” a pre-Band, Levon & the Hawks single—but her sense of musical history runs a bit deeper. She says that she and Henry patterned the new album on Motel Shot, a Delaney and Bonnie release from 1971 that also had a strong Southern gospel feel.
“We listened to that one a lot, along with a lot of early Rod Stewart tracks that had the same kind of throw-and-go sound to them (She also covers “Mandolin Wind” onstage). Motel Shot is one of those records where you can hear that everyone just picked their instruments up and started playing—they didn’t think too much about arrangements, they just sang when it was their turn to sing. There’s kind of an abandon there, where the only thought process is What does this song feel like? In that spirit, we recorded the whole album in four days, and we didn’t do more than two or three takes of any song. Joe asked me not to spend too much time singing, so I wouldn’t have too much familiarity with the songs.”
Though Amy is still in her 40’s, most of her reference points come from slightly before her time; her live show includes a killer version of the Dave Mason song “Only You Know and I Know” (which Delaney and Bonnie also had a hit with). “If you grew up in a certain time, some singers were always going to be part of your DNA,” she says. “For me it was Aretha Franklin—I heard her at age 14 and that was it, the game changer. In high school, I liked it all: the Rolling Stones, along with the Beastie Boys. But the rock and roll that spoke to me was more the classic kind.” Ollabelle’s run in the 2000’s paved the way for a good number of roots bands who took a more somber acoustic approach. “I hope so,” she says. “And as you get older, you have a certain clarity when you look back. Ollabelle was an unusual project, and one that inspired musicians of a certain type over time.”
Still, Helm says, she’s never been much of a record collector. “I know some of my stuff, but I’ve also gleaned a lot from my friends. Everybody has that one friend who can win the Pepsi challenge when it comes to knowing all the deep cuts, and I’ve got a few like that. But the things I do know are inspiring to me. I finally succumbed to the streaming thing and got Tidal, which is better than the rest at paying artists. And the good thing for me is that all these catalogues are wide open in terms of what you can discover. Now I get my ten-year-old running downstairs and shouting things like ‘Mom, have you ever heard of Smokey Robinson?’ It’s like entering another planet.”
She still thrives on collaboration; earlier this spring she toured with North Mississippi Allstars leader Luther Dickinson in his spinoff project. “He did an album with a bunch of different ladies—it’s called Sisters of the Strawberry Moon, which sounds like the most psychedelic thing I’ve ever been part of.” The project began as a celebration of female energy, she says, adding, “But there’s a lot of dude energy there as well.” When time allows, she also hosts her father’s Midnight Ramble in Woodstock musical get together, which has found her jamming with a number of artists, some of whom–like Maria Muldaur, Taj Mahal, and Little Feat–are also performing at the Fest this year. “I love to bring artists together and create an event where you can have a lot of collaboration and chemistry. When you have a bigger band, you have more opportunities to get those moments happening. I guess that what I really love,” she admits, “is a party.”