Thursday, April 19, 2012
LEVON HELM 1940 - 2012
Yes, The Band was one of the best groups of the late '60s and early '70s, and they were partially responsible for getting psychedelia under control. Clapton has famously said that when he saw them, he wanted to leave Cream: his next project, Blind Faith, was a lot more Band-like than the sprawling, "far out" Cream had been. The Grateful Dead did a down-homey pair of song oriented albums (without long jams) after hearing The Band. George Harrison was influenced by them, and so was Steve Winwood. When you watch The Last Waltz, the guest list tells the story: you've got Muddy Waters, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Ringo Starr, Emmylou Harris, Clapton, The Staple Singers, Dr. John and their old boss Bob Dylan. That's a wide range to cover, but everything they played, they played with authority. Levon was one of three singers (along with bassist Rick Danko and pianist Richard Manuel), and he sounded great on his own, or singing with his bandmates. He was unflashy, but really funky, drummer. He also played mandolin.
The reason why I'm such a big fan isn't (just) what he did with The Band. I thought the two LPs that he recorded in the '00s - 2007's Dirt Farmer and 2009's Electric Dirt - were incredible. And a friend of mine took me to see Helm and his band at The Beacon Theater a few years ago: I was truly, truly, blown away. Lots of artists in their 50s and 60s just coast on their past glories. The only artist I could compare Levon to is The Allman Brothers Band. To me, they sound like they are playing old music, but they don't sound like old men. When I hear them play, the music is alive, living and breathing, as vital as anything else you would hear today. I named Levon one of No Expiration's Best Artists of The '00s, and Electric Dirt was one of my favorite LPs of 2009.
I'm so glad I got to see Levon perform with his band, and I'm sorry I never made it up to Woodstock to see a Midnight Ramble. But the vitality of the music he played in his final decade is so inspiring to me. It changes the perception of getting old. He made amazing music, and played incredible shows, while pushing 70. Forget about music for a second: it actually changes the way I see the big seven-oh (and I'm decades away from it).
But of course, you can't forget the music. If you're finding my post and wondering what to check out, I'd start with The Band's debut, 1968's Music From Big Pink, and the second one, 1969's The Band. Then check out his last two studio albums. For live albums, go with The Band's The Last Waltz, and his own Ramble At The Ryman. You'll be glad you did.
Mr. Helm, thank you for the music. Keep keepin' the beat. You're bound for glory, sir.