Remembering Levon Helm

This blog entry was not planned. I actually had already written and prepped a different entry to go out today, but it can wait until next week.

That’s because Levon Helm died yesterday.

You may have no idea who he was, but you (probably) know his voice. Levon Helm was a member of The Band, and though he was one of three lead singers, he ended up singing lead on the group’s most well known song. He also was the group’s drummer, and sometimes mandolin player. Where you know anything about him or have no clue who The Band were, it doesn’t take away from the fact that Levon Helm is a rock music icon.

In a band that was known for playing Americana music, he was, ironically, the only American (the other four members of The Band were Canadian). Possibly due to this fact, in my mind, Levon Helm epitomized the sound of The Band. His voice could be rugged, and it can be beautiful, with the ability to harmonize with Richard Manuel and Rick Danko in ways where the three voices became one, but it was timeless and immediately brought you to a place somewhere in the past. When he spoke he had a bit of a drawl and nice dose of southern twang. He always dressed like he was ready to work on the farm, no matter what he was wearing, especially when he had a beard. He wrote only a few of The Band’s songs, but he was the heart and soul of the group, and the literal and figurative backbone of the group.

He had other musical projects besides The Band, but I honestly have never gotten into them nearly as much as I did with The Band. When I fell head over heels for their music in college, my life changed. I started looking at and approaching music in a different way, and I started to want to listen to more rootsy, earthy, natural music. And no matter who I listened to, Levon’s voice was what I compared it to.

His drumming also had a bit influence on me. He was never flashy; concentrating more on keeping a steady beat that kept the music together. A family friend played with him once, and he said that he was the most “in-the-pocket” drummer he had ever played with. Levon was all about feel, and that was a revelation to me, especially when I was starting to figure out that I didn’t have to be Neil Peart to be a good drummer.

In the end Levon loved music, and music fans loved him, just read his book This Wheel’s On Fire. I’ve heard his Midnight Rambles at his Woodstock house were some of the most organic and amazing musical experiences that people have had; sadly I never made it up there. After his voice came back when his lung cancer went into remission, he went back out on tour, and from what I’ve heard and read, his shows were always fun and uplifting, filled with exceptional music. I am incredibly upset at the fact that I never experienced seeing him live.

To pay my respects to this music icon, I’ve come up with a list of ten songs, by The Band, that, to me, epitomize and exemplify Levon Helm’s voice. And believe me, I will be listening to these songs a lot over the next few days. (To hear the songs click the song name.)

10. “Acadian Driftwood” from Northern Lights – Southern Cross (1975)

This is one of my favorite songs by The Band, not only because it’s incredibly beautiful, but because it is a great example that The Band was a true band, with no real frontman. This is exemplified by the fact that Levon Helm and Richard Manuel are sharing lead vocals, trading off phrases within each verse and then harmonizing with Rick Danko during the choruses. Levon’s voice, in particular, is exquisite, subtly aching with sadness and emotion, though exuding a notion of strong-will from the protagonist he is playing in this tale about the Acadian people.

9. “Atlantic City” from Jericho (1993)

The Band had three incarnations. This Bruce Springsteen cover comes from the first album from the third and final incarnation during the 1990s, which only had three original members: Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson. This may seem like an odd choice to put on the list, but Levon’s voice is absolutely stunning. Being less gritty and earnest than Springsteen’s voice in the original, Helm breathes new life into this fantastic song, giving off a feeling of hope and excitement. He is, of course, helped by the rest of the group, who do an amazing job of changing the whole feel of the song. Still, Levon’s voice cuts right through, and grabs your attention, but in a way that you want to listen to what he is singing, even if you are not forced to.

8. “Don’t Do It” from Rock of Ages (1972)

The Band were known as being one of the best live bands to ever grace the stage. So it’s no wonder that Levon Helm’s voice really comes alive during live recordings (half of the list is from live recordings). In this fantastic cover, from the Motown writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Levon’s voice is full of passion and emotion, giving a truly soulful performance. Throughout the song he is helped by Rick Danko, but even though Danko is singing with similar passion, Levon’s voice cuts through. He might not have been a soul singer, but Levon Helm was full of soul.

7. “Up On Cripple Creek” from Before The Flood (1974)

This is one of the most well known songs from The Band, originally off of the classic album The Band, but this live recording is much less known. Culled from the group’s 1974 co-headlining tour with Bob Dylan (who also co-bills this album), this version has Levon singing with such raw enthusiasm and grit that you wonder how he doesn’t lose it. However, what I love most about this version is how he seems to be truly having fun with the song, changing his vocal rhythms and expressions to really highlight certain parts of the song. My favorite part is during the fifth, and final verse, when he shouts, “So I guess I’ll call up my big mama, and tell her I’ll be rolling in,” and then pulls back, almost stating the following line, “But you know deep down, I’m sort of tempted to go and see my Bessie again.” Then of course there is the “yodeling” outro, where he and Danko “yodel” over each other for about a minute, which shows just how much fun they were having on stage.

6. “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” from The Basement Tapes (1975)

Though the album was released in 1975, this recording actually comes from 1968 when The Band was making demos in their house, known as Big Pink, with the help of Bob Dylan. Now this song may not sound like anything special, but to me this recording is classic Levon. It’s raw and passionate, but still very soulful. Another great thing about this song is that it has Levon on mandolin (which meant that Richard Manuel was on drums), which is something that only happened on a handful of Band tunes. All in all, it’s just a fun little ditty that just happens to showcase the natural singing talent of Levon Helm.

5. “When I Paint My Masterpiece” from Cahoots (1971)

Written by Bob Dylan, for The Band, this recording is one of Levon’s best studio recordings, vocally. The song shows off his vocal range, but in a way where he doesn’t sound like he’s straining when he gets into his upper register. And even though this is not a live recording, the immense amount of emotion that emits from his voice is remarkable. . It may not sound like his voice fits this song, but the southern twang the is ever present somehow works, making  it seem like he is a country boy discovering Europe for the first time. It also should be noted that Levon is once again on mandolin, and plays it just wonderfully throughout.

4. “Forbidden Fruit” a live recording from A Musical History (2005)

This previously unreleased live recording from 1976 is a revved up version of the song, which was originally released on Northern Lights – Southern Cross. This recording not only showcases the energy and zeal of Levon’s voice, it also showcases his ability as a drummer. Not only does he play an incredibly solid beat that locks everyone in, but he compliments the music with his tasteful fills and his precision on the unison hits. Yet, the most remarkable thing is that he’s doing this while singing lead. Singing while playing drums is not an easy task to begin with, but to do so with extreme precision and emotion while playing syncopated beats is simply amazing.

3. “Ophelia” from The Last Waltz (1978)

The Last Waltz is considered to be one of the best rock films of all time, and contains some of The Band’s best live performances. Yet, in his book, This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon discusses how many of the vocal tracks (and some of the music tracks) were redone for the film, and that what you are hearing is not the original recordings. That is, except for his vocals and drumming. Now why should I take his word? Well, I’ve watched the film many times (actually just watched it while writing this entry), and I can honestly say that when you watch each member sing, Levon is the only one whose voice matches up with this actions on screen. So, this just means that he really was having one of his best performances ever, making the songs he sang that much more amazing, and “Ophelia” is one of the best. Though his performance on the studio version, which also comes from Northern Lights-Southern Cross, is stellar, this live version blows it out of the water. I won’t repeat myself with the adjectives, but this recording is a prime example of how powerful his voice could be.

2. “The Weight” from Music From Big Pink

If you’ve heard anything from The Band, this is the song, and it’s Levon who is singing lead (except for one verse). The song is undeniably a classic, and Levon’s voice is one of the reasons. The natural beauty that emanates from his voice is indescribable. His tone, intonation, and phrasing are perfect. There is a passion that resonates, even though his voice is well controlled. And those harmonies, hot damn, they are fantastic. Yes, I know, that he is not the one that is singing the harmonizing lines, but the way his voice melds with Danko’s and Manuel’s is amazing. This song typifies timelessness of his voice (as well as the group’s music), because if you didn’t know that this was recorded in 1968, you may have thought it came from decades earlier. It’s just plain beautiful.

1. “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from The Last Waltz (1978)

You know how I talked about the passion, emotion, and power of his voice before? Well, none of those compare to this. Though he did not write this song (he was consulted about the lyrical content), this song is Levon Helm, and this recording is the ultimate version. The song is about the South during the Civil War, and who better to sing it then a southerner? But the original recording, which comes from The Band, lacks the emotion that this live version has, musically and vocally. When you listen to the song and/or watch the clip from the movie, you can hear the ache in desperation in Levon’s voice, and can easily imagine him being in a war torn field wondering what the hell is going on. But there’s something deeper that comes through. It’s almost like he is the voice of the past pain and frustration that his forefathers experienced during that disastrous period of American history. When you watch the clip from the film you’ll know what I mean, because you can see it in his face, especially during the choruses. There are very few songs that send shivers down my spine, but this is one of them. If I was asked to give an example of Levon Helm, this is the recording I would use.

I never knew Levon Helm personally, but he has played a strong role in my life. I ask you, my readers, to pay respects to a man who helped shape American music by listening some of his music, at the very least the songs I just discussed. If you’d like to dig a little deeper, I suggest listening to Music From Big Pink, The Band, and Northern Lights – Southern Cross, and/or watching The Last Waltz. I know this wasn’t the best eulogy to this amazing man, but it’s the best I could do.

R.I.P. Levon Helm.


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