Amy Helm caught the music world’s attention with Ollabelle long ago. She further commandeered it a decade later with her solo debut “Didn’t It Rain.” When word came that her sophomore release, “This Too Shall Light,” was to be produced by the ever-magical Joe Henry, with the title song penned by the creative genius MC Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, it ratcheted expectations to an unfair level.
Upon debuting that album with a headline performance at AmericanaFest in Nashville last September, it was obvious she had cleared that bar with great ease. … As a solo artist, Amy Helm is getting only better, a point driven home with authority Thursday night at Sonia in Cambridge. While “This Too Shall Light” is hushed by comparison to her other solo work, she proved that the days playing as a teenager in father Levon Helm’s blues band Levon & the Barn Burners, and later in The Midnight Ramble Band were well served. In addition to the quiet, acoustic beauty she brings, mandolin in hand, to the covers that comprise the bulk of the latest album, Amy Helm and her superb band (Tony Mason, drums; Adam Minkoff, bass, backing vocals; Mark Marshall, guitar; Kevin Bents, keyboards; and Gabby Sherba, backing vocals) brought it all to light at Sonia, the former TT The Bear’s Place — rock, blues, gospel, soul and acid-tinged bluegrass. Those communal jams at the Midnight Rambles obviously paid great dividends for Amy Helm as she can easily switch styles and tempos, and front her band with power and style and without squelching her players.
Hearing her reprise the covers she recorded on “This Too Shall Light” is to know there is no shame in borrowing. She makes them distinctly her own, even more so on stage than in the studio. The Milk Carton Kids’ “Michigan,” for instance, grows from a lyrical folk-framed lament to a soulful heart-wrenching ballad. Thursday night it reached a full fever pitch. Same for T Bone Burnett’s powerfully pensive “River of Love.” Helm turns it into a processional hymn with a pleading urgency in her voice.
Amy always performs at least one song in tribute to her late father. On this night, there were two, including a real throwback she recorded on the new album, “The Stones I Throw,” a Robbie Robertson tune from the pre-Band days of Levon and the Hawks. For “Atlantic City,’’ she called back to the stage local openers the Brothers McCann. They turned down the lights and cranked up the harmonies to the delight of all.
At top, Amy Helm preforms at Sonia. Above, top: Tony Mason at the drums; Above, bottom: The Brothers McCann join Amy Helm, Mark Marshall, left, and Adam Minkoff, right.