After a lifetime of playing in bands, Amy Helm has taken on the role of frontwoman. While life in the spotlight was unfamiliar at first, Helm hit her stride with a 2015 debut album, “Didn’t It Rain,” and an international tour that stops at Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs on Sunday, July 24. New York–based group Fife & Drom will open the night, and Ms. Helm is set to perform with her band, the Handsome Strangers, at 7:30 pm. In a recent interview with The Times, Ms. Helm said she is excited to return to the Island after fondly remembered trips as a child.
Ms. Helm is music royalty. The daughter of the late Levon Helm, drummer for the Band, and singer-songwriter Libby Titus, and stepdaughter of Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, Ms. Helm has been immersed in the world of music and live performance for a lifetime. She is perhaps best known for her work with the alt-country group Ollabelle. Her solo career is the result of a long, meticulous climb which has been, by all accounts, well worth the wait. Earlier this year, Rolling Stone magazine called her “one of Americana’s most impassioned, soul-stirring singers,” and “Didn’t It Rain” has earned a five-star rating on iTunes.
When asked about her journey to center stage, Ms. Helm gives most of the credit to her compatriots. “I couldn’t ask for more extraordinary musicians and people to have walked along this path with” she said. Ms. Helm’s years of experience have yielded philosophical insights into the music business as well as formidable musical chops. Reflecting on the past year since the release of “Didn’t It Rain,” Ms. Helm said, “It continues to be just humbling and inspiring to connect with these musicians.”
“Didn’t It Rain” was recorded at the Barn in upstate New York, the acclaimed studio owned by Levon Helm and widely regarded as a haven for folk and Americana artists the world over. The elder Helm’s unmistakable style and count-off can be heard on three of the album’s tracks, but his influence is recognizable throughout. “Didn’t It Rain” is the last record to feature Levon Helm’s distinctive drumming. The record was a labor of love for many years, and has come to represent a profound period of self discovery for Ms. Helm. “I was still getting comfortable with the idea of being a solo artist,” Ms. Helm wrote on her website. “I thought I’d finished the record, but then I started going out on the road, and the stuff that we were doing live was so much stronger than what I had recorded, and I started feeling more confidence and focus. So we went back in the studio, with no money and no budget, and found a way to do it and get it right.”
Ms. Helm’s relationship with her bandmates is a testament to the vision of a woman who values quality above all else. Bassist Byron Isaacs, guitarist Daniel Littleton, and drummer David Berger are more than just musical collaborators and tour companions, they are like family. Ms. Helm said the Handsome Strangers are “like brothers, and [have been] so supportive as I’ve found my way along this road, and certainly stumbled and got back up.”
“Didn’t It Rain” is an album sure to enhance any record collection, and audience members on Sunday night will have the opportunity to experience Helm’s poignant originals along with her impassioned take on old-timey covers. Those impressed by Ms. Helm’s debut can look forward to the artist’s next album, slated for release in the spring. It is a collaboration with Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, among other luminaries of the folk and alt-country universe.
As Ms. Helm reflects on the past year of recording and touring, she says gratitude is the first thing that comes to mind. “I’m so grateful to have had all these opportunities this past year to play these songs for folks,” she said. With her international tour in full swing, Ms. Helm never forgets where the focus of her energy is best situated. In spite of nerves and the pressure of her musical lineage, Ms. Helm approaches performance with a playful disposition. “I think of it like I’m going out dancing with people for a couple hours,” she said. “If I get too much in my head, I feel like I lose that connection.”
Amy Helm in concert, Sunday, July 24 at 7 pm. Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs. Tickets are $45 and are available online, at the West Tisbury library, and at the door. Sponsored by the West Tisbury Library Foundation and 88.7 FM, WMVY. For more information, visit wtlibraryfoundation.org.
This article by Sean M. Della Croce originally appeared on mvtimes.com.