Blues-roots rocker Amy Helm finds sophistication and cold temps in residency at Milkboy
One of the first things apparent about Amy Helm – beyond the roots-rocking singer/songwriter’s rich heritage – on the day after her first residency date at Milkboy Center City is that neither she nor her band give a damn about the freezing cold. “Nope, I’m a tried-and-true Woodstock-er,” said Helm with a laugh, last 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 worldliness and panache could stem from the influence of her mom (chanteuse Libby Titus) and stepdad (Donald Fagen, whose solo work and Steely Dan reunions benfitted from Helm’s backing vocals) and Amy has yet another answer. “I’m reticent to credit anyone but (current band-mate) Cindy Cashdollar for such sophistication,” says Helm 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 head-first to swim for herself – to take a chance, improvisationally – is what she learned from Levon; both from watching him operate, as well as co-producing his multi-artist 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 folky Ollabelle the same year she co-created 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 do develop its songs in the winter of 2003-2004. 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 co-wrote 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, re-jiggerng arrangements to her older tracks (such as the smooth “Gentling Me”) and epic rock classics: 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 up-coming 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.”
So does Helm know yet what songs will make it into the next round? “Nooooo,” 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.”
Published at Sun, 19 Mar 2017 23:41:25 +0000