Some of us spend our lives forever trying to recapture some kind of golden age—and if that’s what’s going on with Amy Helm, you can hardly blame her for trying. Especially since it’s not so much her star-studded upbringing that she most treasures, but her memories of a funky barn on her dad’s upstate New York property.
Helm’s father, of course, was Levon Helm, the Band’s charismatic and universally beloved drummer, singer, and mandolinist. Her mother, Libby Titus, is an underrated lyricist who was once Burt Bacharach’s songwriting partner. And Helm’s stepfather, for almost 30 years, has been Steely Dan main man Donald Fagen.
Award shows, movie premieres, private jets: Helm’s known them all. But when asked about her upbringing, the 46-year-old singer immediately zeroes in on the Midnight Rambles that Levon liked to organize on his Woodstock farm.
“I can certainly say that listening to ‘Black Friday’, sung by Donald and played by the Ramble band with my dad’s backbeat on it, was one of the cooler things that I’ve ever heard,” she says fondly, on the line from a Portland, Oregon, tour stop. “It was pretty great, I gotta tell you. It was just greasy enough.”
And while the avowed template for the new and as-yet-untitled album that Helm has just finished recording is Motel Shot, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett’s warts-and-all impression of a postgig jam session with Leon Russell, Joe Cocker, John Hartford, and Gram Parsons, the spirit of the Ramble was very much present in the studio.
“The intention of the record was to sort of create a sound that sounded like community, that sounded like a whole bunch of people hanging out in a room making music—very live, very spontaneous,” Helm says. “The centrepiece of the album is a lot of keyboards, and lots and lots of vocals. I actually featured a singer who you may be familiar with named Ali Russell, from a band called Birds of Chicago, and another fantastic singer who I work with a lot named Adam Minkoff, and Ali’s husband, JT Nero. The three of them were my choir, so a lot of the songs have that sound as their centre.
“I made the record in four days, which was pretty interesting,” Helm adds, noting that producer Joe Henry played an integral part in keeping the music flowing. “We didn’t do more than one or two takes of each song, and I stuck with all live vocals. The whole thing was a really liberating experience. We didn’t spend too much time arranging; we just really all jumped in and started singing and playing, and Joe directed everyone beautifully.”
In contrast, Helm’s current touring band is a stripped-down, funk- and rock-focused quintet, but it’s not lacking in spirit or instrumental prowess—especially since lap-steel-guitar genius Cindy Cashdollar, another Ramble regular, will be prominently featured.
“I like to sculpt a set that features the players and that takes people on a trip,” Helm says. “You know, I knock out a proper rock ’n’ roll show, with a couple of moments where you can touch back down and get a little gospel and a little church, and a couple of acoustic numbers that might connect to more of a bluegrass background.
“Cindy’s a good example of that,” she continues. “We have a really beautiful ballad that I’ve been doing, and she plays Dobro on it, and then we do an electrified version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Meet Me in the Morning’ where watching her is like watching Jimi Hendrix occupy the body of a tiny blond woman. All of a sudden she’s blowing the roof off the place—so it’s a fun show, with all sorts of dynamics.”
Amy Helm plays the WISE Hall on Sunday (September 17).