By Crista Munro
Special to The PREVIEW
The 23rd annual Four Corners Folk Festival will take place on Reservoir Hill in Pagosa Springs Aug. 31-Sept. 2.
This year’s world-class musical lineup includes The Dawg Trio (featuring David Grisman, Danny Barnes and Samson Grisman), Nahko And Medicine For The People, Sam Bush, We Banjo 3, The Accidentals, Sam Reider and the Human Hands, Front Country, Jon Stickley Trio, The Jacob Jolliff Band, The Western Flyers Bonnie and the Clydes, Tallgrass, Courtney Hartman and Taylor Ashton, and this week’s featured performers: Amy Helm and Darling West.
Although the personally charged, organically soulful album “Didn’t It Rain” is her first release under her own name, Helm has been making music for most of her life. She’s already won widespread praise as a singer, songwriter and live performer, first as a member of the celebrated alt-country collective Ollabelle (a band that played the Four Corners Folk Festival in 2007 and 2008) and subsequently for her extensive work with her father, musical icon Levon Helm, who passed away in 2012.
Blessed with a commanding, deeply expressive voice and an uncanny songwriting skill that instinctively draws upon a deep well of American musical traditions, Amy Helm delivers a timelessly powerful statement with “Didn’t It Rain.”
The spellbinding dozen-song set is rooted in first-person experience, exploring universal themes of life, love and loss on such musically and emotionally resonant originals as the smoldering soul ballad “Rescue Me”; the hushed, lilting “Deep Water”; the meditative “Roll Away”; and the stark, haunting “Wild Girl.” Complementing Helm’s originals are her personalized takes on the Sam Cooke classic “Good News” and the traditional title track, which she delivers with the heartfelt gospel urgency that’s always been an element of her vocal persona.
Accompanying Amy Helm on “Didn’t It Rain” is an impressive roster of players and singers that demonstrates the esteem in which the artist is held by her peers. Amy Helm’s former Ollabelle bandmate, Byron Isaacs, who produced the album, co-wrote the majority of the songs with Amy Helm, and is featured as one-third of her current live trio, the Handsome Strangers, playing bass alongside guitarist Daniel Littleton and drummer David Berger. Also contributing their talents are Little Feat keyboardist Bill Payne; guitarists Larry Campbell, Chris Masterson and Jim Weider; keyboardists Marco Benevento, John Medeski and Brian Mitchell; and guest backup vocalists Carolyn Leonhart, Elizabeth Mitchell, Allison Moorer, Catherine Russell and Teresa Williams.
“Didn’t It Rain” also marked the final recording sessions of Levon Helm, who acted as the project’s executive producer, as well as adding his unmistakable drumming on three tracks; Levon Helm’s distinctive count-off can be heard kicking off Amy Helm’s rousing take on Martha Scanlan’s “Spend Our Last Dime.”
Amy Helm had originally planned to release her solo debut a bit sooner, but chose to substantially rework the album that she initially recorded, recutting more than half of the songs with the road-tested Handsome Strangers.
“That was kind of a reckless move financially, and it’s resulted in the album coming out two years later than I originally thought it would, but it was the right thing to do,” she acknowledged. “When I started the record, I’d never done a gig under my own name, and I was still getting comfortable with the idea of being a solo artist. 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.”
Many of “Didn’t It Rain’s” songs are the product of an extended period during which the artist endured a series of personal trials and life changes, including the April 2012 passing of her father and chief musical mentor.
“The past few years have been profoundly transformative for me, so I wanted to tell some of those stories as honestly as I could,” she asserted. “I thought about the people I had lost, and things that had fallen apart and things that were coming together, and that influenced the way I sang these songs.”
Amy Helm began connecting with audiences early in life, playing her first gig in her early teens in a Manhattan bar and drifting informally through a series of combos before her father recruited her to join his live band. She also absorbed musical and personal inspiration from her mother, noted singer/songwriter Libby Titus, and her stepfather, Steely Dan co-mastermind Donald Fagen, who offered her additional opportunities to find herself as a performer.
“I always did gigs through high school and college,” she explained, “but my fears and insecurities kept me from committing to it. That’s when my dad became a huge influence; he scooped me up when I was in my mid-20s and put me in this blues band. I was very, very green, but I got my road-dog status with him. It was like walking through fire every time I got on stage, but it forced me to decide if I wanted to do this. And I decided that I absolutely wanted to do it.”
Amy Helm’s vocal and songwriting talents soon found a home in the New York-based Ollabelle, whose three acclaimed albums and countless live gigs saw her evolve into a confident, charismatic performer. She also resumed her musical collaboration with her father, singing and playing in his band, playing on and co-producing his Grammy-winning 2007 comeback album “Dirt Farmer” and helping to organize the now-legendary Midnight Ramble concerts at Levon Helm’s home studio in Woodstock, N.Y.
“He was the best teacher, in so many ways,” she said of her father. “He wasn’t interested in overthinking anything; all he cared about was playing music. He saw himself as a working musician, and it was serious business and it had to be right. Playing side by side with him in the Ramble band for 10 years, and building those shows with him, really changed the way I approached things, and his humility influenced and shaped me as a musician, as it did everyone who played with him.”
With “Didn’t It Rain” re-introducing her to the world as a solo artist, Amy Helm said that her immediate plan is “to just get out and play as many gigs as possible. I think that the job of a musician is to try and shake people out of their own heads for an hour or two and bring some joy into the world. So, I want to get out there and do the job the best I can.”
Amy Helm will return to the Four Corners main stage on Sept. 1 at 4 p.m.
The musicians of Darling West experienced a spectacular breakthrough in their musical career after the release of their second album, “Vinyl and a Heartache,” in 2016.
They were awarded a Norwegian Spellemann award (the equivalent of Grammy) for the recording, were listed on Norway’s biggest radio channels and appeared on the Top 100 Country charts in the U.S. They have played shows all over the world — among the highlights are several of Norway’s biggest festivals, SXSW in Texas, Americanafest in Nashville, a tour with Sam Outlaw and a support slot for Lucinda Williams. They have also had more than 3 million plays on Spotify, appearing in several influential playlists.
Always ambitious and restless, the band didn’t rest on their acquired laurels. In fact, the group’s members headed straight into the studio to record the follow-up to “Vinyl and a Heartache.” Darling West’s third album, the self-produced “While I Was Asleep,” contains 10 new songs and was released in February.
Although they have added drums, the band stays true to its rootsy sound and still plays the sweet Americana/country/folk they are known for. Moreover, the new album demonstrates a revitalized Darling West, with more drive in the music and even catchier melodies than before.
Darling West’s career continues to be on the up, and 2018 promises to be their biggest year so far. In January, they played three shows at the prestigious Eurosonic music festival in the Netherlands and unveiled the album’s fourth single, “Loneliness.” A visit to Folk Alliance in Kansas City coincided with the album release date and provided a fitting arena for the launch of “While I Was Asleep.”
Festival goers will have two chances to catch Darling West on the main stage: Aug. 31, at 4:30 p.m. and again on Sept. 2 at 1 p.m.
The Four Corners Folk Festival is a family-friendly event, with free admission for children 12 and under (when accompanied by an adult) and lots of free activities and entertainment at the Kids Tent offered throughout the festival.
The festival takes place rain or shine, and a central feature is the 10,000-square-foot tent with general admission seating for 1,300 people, available on a first-come basis. The meadow and trees outside the tent provide ample room for tarps, blankets and low festival chairs.
Additional information about tickets, performers and schedules can be found online at www.folkwest.com. Tickets can also be purchased by phone at 731-5582.
There is information available on the website about volunteering for a festival ticket (ages 17 and up); volunteer shifts are filling quickly.
The Four Corners Folk Festival is supported in part by a matching Colorado Creates grant from Colorado Creative Industries.
Bio information provided by Amy Helm and Darling West.