The opening act, Freddy & Francine, however, traveled from significantly farther away. An Americana couple from Nashville, they were joined by a big bassist and launched the embarkation of the evening. With only a tambourine, unplugged bass, acoustic guitar and their voices, the trio made significant ripples around the room.
When Freddy, whose real name is Lee Ferris, spoke between songs, he sounded like a regular guy; when he sang, he sounded like a folk sensation. As they put on a moving cover of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind,” Freddy and Francine (Bianca Caruso) maintained unblinking, unyielding eye contact that was nearly blinding.
The energy between the couple-plus-one was palpable, their harmonies remarkably in sync. This was the first night of their ironically-titled Summer Tour and the soulful Southerners elicited excited applause.
Amy, as she’s simply and lovingly known in Woodstock, took the stage following a break and, drum in tow, went right into a cover of her father’s “Feelin’ Good.” Levon’s voice is irreplaceable and unmistakable, but Amy has clearly inherited his amiable presence and musical aptitude – who else can sing the blues so happily? After playing a clip of Levon singing “Little Birds,” dobro maestro Cindy Cashdollar mused, “If my voice could come through half as clear as his, I’d be happy.”
History seeps from the rafters of the Barn at Levon Helm Studios and, with Woodstock’s first daughter squarely in the limelight, the crowd was fully spellbound. It was fascinating to hear the folk gospel of the Mississippi sung to the staunch devotees of Levon Helm, many of whom undoubtedly witnessed him 50 years ago at Woodstock ‘69. Most of the evening’s congregation sat straight-backed, unmoving, eyes glued to the revered Ms. Helm. While I felt my limbs unable to resist involuntarily moving to the tunes, I witnessed much of the crowd sitting immobile, so engulfed by the musicians.
The stage was undeniably Amy’s, though Cindy Cashdollar’s genius on the strings was equally unmistakable. Whether it was the lap steel or the dobro she played, her strokes were magical. The twang she inherited from her time in Texas jived with her Northern heritage. She was, at once, technically flawless and emotionally invested.
Between the songs, they sprinkled in the stories: life with Levon and growing up with a legend. Amy and Cindy recalled late night rambles and his infectious affability, how Levon made music look easy and made those around him sound better. While his presence always lives on in Woodstock, his spirit was prominent this night emanating from his daughter and cascading from his disciple.