A strong performance from Amy Helm and the Handsome Strangers helped usher in the intimate “Live from the Chandelier Lobby” series Friday night at the F.M. Kirby Center in Wilkes-Barre.
On a small, slightly raised stage directly underneath the huge chandelier in the art deco lobby, Helm, the daughter of the late, legendary Levon Helm of The Band and singer/songwriter Libby Titus Fagen, played a nice mixture of originals and well-chosen covers for the crowd of about 125.
The Connor Kennedy Band — like the headliner also from the Woodstock, N.Y., area — played first and were pleased to be the first ever to take the stage in the new series.
“We’ve been in the area before, playing at the (River Street) Jazz Cafe, and we’re really glad to be here in the chandelier lobby,” Kennedy said, before looking up at the huge, ornate light hanging directly above his head. “Hopefully it stays there.”
Kennedy, a great guitarist and equally fine singer, then led his three bandmates through a seven-song, 35-minute set, highlighting his debut album, 2013’s “Nothing Lasts: Nothing’s Over,” which he noted had its release party at Levon’s Barn.
Kennedy and his cohorts shined brightly on “Chinos,” perhaps the hardest rocker of the set, and “Love Song for New York,” a somber tune in which Kennedy longs for the New York City of old with lines like, “New York just ain’t for me no more.”
The four-piece band also turned in a gorgeous rendition of “Behind That Locker Door,” one of the hidden gems from George Harrison’s masterpiece “All Things Must Pass.”
In keeping with the intimate, loose atmosphere of the evening, Helm casually strolled onto the stage, waved to a few fans, tuned her mandolin, and then led her band through “Roll the Stone.”
After a tasty rendition of “The Battle Is Over But the War Goes On” (which she did with her father on “The Midnight Ramble Sessions, Vol. 2”), Helm invited Kennedy on stage for an equally impressive version of “I Love the Life I Live, I Live the Life I Love,” a tune written by Willie Dixon for Muddy Waters.
Following a few originals, the intimate show got even more intimate as Helm and her band picked up acoustic instruments and played the next three songs in the midst of the audience, without microphones. Beginning with Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” with Helm and bassist/guitarist Byron Isaacs trading verses, and ending with Neil Young’s “Unknown Legend,” with guitarist Dan Littleton on lead vocals, these three songs were a definite high point.
Back on the stage, Isaacs treated the crowd to his interpretation of “Calvary,” a song he had written and forgotten about until Levon Helm resurrected it on his acclaimed 2007 comeback album “Dirt Farmer.” (Isaacs played and sang background vocals on the recording, along with Amy Helm.)
Another highlight was “Long, Black Veil,” the Lefty Frizzell song covered by The Band, with all eight musicians of the two bands crowding onto the tiny stage and Kennedy on lead vocals.
After a few more tunes by Helm and her band, the night came to a close with a spiritual sung a cappella by Helm, Littleton, and Isaacs crowded around the same microphone, and the eight musicians again taking the stage for Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That Good News.”
Asking Will Beekman, the managing director of the Kirby Center, how he thought the evening went, Beekman was approached by a gentleman who told him, “You got it right,” going on to say that he has seen the group at Levon’s Barn and Friday’s performance recreated a lot of the same vibe.
This is exactly what the Kirby Center was going for in the new series and confirmation that they did indeed “get it right” with the premier performance.