Review: Amy Helm’s handmade soul from Woodstock

Amy Helm reflects as powerfully and gloriously as she sings throughout “What the Flood Leaves Behind.”
Photo by Ebru Yildiz

Amy Helm’s “What the Flood Leaves Behind” serves as an arresting statement of release and renewal, and as a beautiful homecoming. Produced by pianist, guitarist and mandolin player Josh Kaufman at the Woodstock, New York studio built by Helm’s late father, Levon Helm of The Band, its songs blossom luxuriantly. But Helm and the rest of the extraordinary musicians assembled — Phil Cook (keyboards, harmonica), Michael Libramento (bass, organ, percussion), Tony Mason (drums), Daniel Littleton (guitar), Stuart Bogie (sax), Jordan McLean (trumpet) and Helm’s son, Lee Collins (congas) —struck an ideal, delicate balance by ingraining them with the handmade soul intrinsic to the area.

Growing up surrounded by music, Helm followed in her dad’s footsteps, becoming an impressive guitarist, mandolin player, pianist and drummer. She formed the creative retro-gospel group Ollabelle 20 years ago, and around the same time set off to driving Levon around the country, playing in his blues band because he needed her to. Following that, she led his star-studded Midnight Ramble performances live at his studio, continuing to do so even after he passed on. She draws on all her experiences for this, her third solo album.

Over tender plucks of strings, Helm begins singing “Verse 23,” and it’s as if the heavens have opened. Written specifically for Helm by M.C. Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger), the song, based on the Psalm of David, considers how we should deal with the good and the bad in life, indicating that “What the flood leaves behind is what we’ve got to make.” Helm seems to have lived by that credo all her life. In the thoughtful “Cotton and the Cain,” she pays respects to her ancestors in Arkansas, and to those who raised her in Woodstock, whom she’s referred to as “The village of brilliant and talented people who were also wresting with the grips of addiction.” Amid swirling organ that recalls The Band’s Garth Hudson, Helm sings the line “Heroin, I’m locked out again” seemingly offhanded, as if she was resigned to it.

Amy Helm reflects as powerfully and gloriously as she sings throughout the album’s 10 songs, as if a velvety songbird fluttering across a vast spectrum of settings, and mindsets. Within the glossy, urgent folk music of Daniel Norgren’s “Are We Running Out of Love,” she offers a gorgeous but crucial plea for these troubled times. Subtle mandolin, percussion, and piano carry the lamenting “Carry it Alone,” as Helm ponders a past relationship and her future, with promise and wonder in her voice. “Renegade Heart” closes this crowning achievement of an album with the gospel-tinged truth, signaling the new rise of a singular talent.

-Tom Clarke               

  • Amy Helm
  • ‘What the Flood Leaves Behind’
  • Label: Renew/BMG
  • Release: June 18, 2021

ABOUT Tom Clarke

Tom Clarke
From pre-war blues to the bluegrass of the Virginia hills, Tom Clarke has a passion for most any kind of deep-rooted American music, and has been writing about it for 25 years. He’s particularly fond of anything from Louisiana, Los Lobos, and the Allman Brothers Band and its ever-growing family tree. Tom’s reviews and articles have appeared in BluesPrint, the King Biscuit Times, Hittin’ The Note, Kudzoo, Blues Revue, Elmore, Blues Music Magazine, and now, Tahoe Onstage. Tom and his wife Karen have raised four daughters in upstate New York. They split their time between the Adirondack Mountains and coastal South Carolina.

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