by Jordan Green
For generations of rock fans, the music of the Band is comfort food.
When they emerged in the late ’60s after years of toiling in obscurity as the backing band for Arkansas rockabilly showman Ronnie Hawkins and then no less than the great Bob Dylan, they had tapped into the raw, elusive source of rock and roll — a psychic place, primal and mystical.
No better time to indulge — for both musicians and fans — in a celebration of the music that shaped our collective joy than Thanksgiving, a holiday when time is briefly suspended and some of us want to slip away momentarily from traditional familial obligations and gather, not around a table but in front of a stage.
The New Familiars, a Charlotte-based group that has been running the road for about a decade, are the right guys to take up the mantle of the Band, who it’s safe to say will never reunite considering that three out of five members have passed away. The most recent of that number is Levon Helm, the phenomenal drummer, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist whose love of hillbilly and R&B music from his Arkansas youth remained unwavering through his death in April 2012.
The New Familiars had the opportunity to perform with Helm in 2010, and played their first tribute to the drummer shortly after his passing. A recording of the tribute show at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion in 2013 was released as an album. On Thanksgiving eve they brought the show to the Blind Tiger in Greensboro for the first time, following two days later at the Visulite Theatre in Charlotte.
Notwithstanding Helm’s name on the billing, the show is really a tribute to the Band and its larger family of musical sojourners. That includes Dylan, both during the legendary Basement Tapes session (“Goin’ to Acapulco”) and the 1974 comeback tour (an incendiary version of the folk standard “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”), the all-star lineup of the Band’s 1976 swan song The Last Waltz (Neil Young’s “Helpless”), and Helm’s latter-day cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed.”
From their inception, the New Familiars’ musical ability to move seamlessly between acoustic hootenannies and electric rock and roll has placed them directly in the Band’s slipstream. Their “no frontman” arrangement, with guitarists Justin Fedor and Josh Daniel handling vocal duties in equal share, also meshes with the Band’s democratic framework. And Patrick Maholland, the bass player for the New Familiars, bears an almost uncanny resemblance to Band guitarist Robbie Robertson.
From the first few bars of “Life Is a Carnival” and leading into “Rag Mama Rag,” the New Familiars and their guests perfectly captured the kinetic, organic sound of the Band. If that were all the show would have been a disappointment, but they proved over the course of two and a half hours that they had many other textures and facets.
Carrying the weight of responsibility for lead vocals, Daniel and Fedor demonstrated an interesting counterpoise. Daniel’s emotion-drenched vocals on “It Makes No Difference” balanced against the clenched passion of Fedor’s take on “Ophelia.” Both are forceful and direct singers whose vocal owe a debt to not only Helm but also his late cohort Rick Danko.
A constantly changing array of guests kept the show constantly interesting. Jason Atkins, who occasionally plays with the band, handled keyboards throughout the set. A second keyboard was set up at a right angle, and it was fun to watch Atkins interact with other guest players, including Greensboro music scene veteran Dave McCracken of Donna the Buffalo, who sat in with Possum Jenkins at the Garage two nights later.
Three members of the Charlotte-based Midwood Horns made frequent appearances on the stage, adding sonic heft and frequent displays of gale force. Their second break on “Ophelia” took the song into a free-jazz realm, followed by a quick parenthesis to return to the verse.
Jessica Borgnis, a jazz singer who is also from Charlotte, played the roles of Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell, with vocal accompaniment that was the least wedded in style to the original music. She also took a few turns at the keyboards with Atkins.
Although the New Familiars also do a Grateful Dead tribute, their rendition of “Tennessee Jed” at the Blind Tiger leaned more towards Helm’s hard-swinging style. A guest turn by guitarist Keith Allen of the Greensboro jam band the Mantras honored Jerry Garcia in spirit without being derivative as he unleashed a celestial and fiery solo while jamming with McCracken.
After the song clattered to a rest, Daniel followed with a rendition of “Goin’ to Acapulco” that began quietly with only his acoustic guitar and voice. By the second verse, swelling organ from Atkins, Borgnis’ honeyed vocals and the Midwood Horns came in like a tidal surge.
They continued into “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” no greater or less than the 1974 version seared into the consciousness by Dylan and the Band, but a satisfying reminder of how hard they could rock.
The New Familiars temporarily surrendered the stage to the Deluge, a Triad soul and roots-inspired outfit that similarly owes a major debt to Helms and the Band. Vocalist Brandon Knox led them through a ragged, impassioned rendition of “King Harvest,” followed by “Loving You (Is Sweeter Than Ever).”
Brian Tyndall, Allen’s cohort from the Mantras, took over bass during “Shape I’m In” and “Up On Cripple Creek,” coming down hard on the groove and playing as if it might be his last chance.
The revelation of the night was Atkins’ channeling of Garth Hudson’s apocalyptic organ intro on “Chest Fever” to the evident delight of the Midwood Horns’ Marolyn Garo watching from across the stage.
Although the crowd was relatively thin and not always actively engaged, by the time the band reached the finale of “The Weight” and the assorted guests returned to the stage, the moment had gelled. Fedor, Atkins, Borgni and Deluge bass player George Westberry traded verses, each a revelation of the various singers’ interpretation and intonation.
“The Weight” and, before it, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” brought everyone to the front in a communal moment that bound friends and strangers alike in their shared love of the music.
I picked up my bag and I went lookin’ for a place to hide
When I saw Carmen and the devil walkin’ side by side
And I said, ‘Hey Carmen, come on, let’s go downtown’
She said, ‘I gotta go, but my friend can stick around.’