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The Last Waltz: Levon Helm

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Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


(Mark Lavon) ‘Levon’ Helm
Drummer, singer, actor (born Elaine, Arkansas, USA, May 1940), died of cancer, 19 April, aged 71.

Shortly after the sad passing of American music’s true great Levon Helm, Simone Felice (Felice Brothers) shared a toast to the audience for Levon during his Irish and European tour. Near the end of the set, Felice called for a pint of Guinness, upon which he made an impassioned and beautiful speech about his friend and hero, Levon Helm, then raised his glass. He told the audience how, as a child, he cycled his bicycle by Big Pink, how fortunate he was to play at two Rambles and even got to sing some verses of ‘The Weight’ on one occasion.

‘Levon made us think about dignity, loyalty, friendship, family’, Garth Hudson on his great Band mate. ‘He is a true hero and has left us grieving’.

Nearly to the end, Levon Helm spent his life on the band stand. ‘If it doesn’t come from your heart, music just doesn’t work’. Helm’s country tinged southern soul vocals and superbly understated drumming were at the core of The Band’s sound. He was the soul of the group. The Band’s roots music revolution which inspired the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Fairport Convention, Eric Clapton and decades later, inspired Mercury Rev, Calexico, Wilco and countless other artists and musicians. Their trademark style was later dubbed Americana, a style and genre which is still very much alive today.

In 1957, Levon Helm joined journeyman Ronnie Hawkins as a group The Hawks. His rock ‘n’ roll venture with Hawkins consisted of all The Band members-Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel. The high demands of Hawkins eventually took its toll and the Hawks broke away in ’64, which led to the formation of Levon and the Hawks. From September ’65 to May ’66, Helm and co. accompanied Bob Dylan, during the historic time when Dylan went ‘electric’. Helm quit after a time and returned to Arkansas as he ‘wasn’t made to get booed’.

In July ’66, The Hawks with Levon Helm aboard, were invited by Dylan to the Big Pink House in West Saugherties, New York. As the group were often called ‘the band’ by friends and neighbours, Helm, Robertson, Manuel, Hudson and Danko were officially The Band and soon changed the course of American music forever.The fabled Basement Tapes demos were recorded during this time. This was a double-album of infused early rock ‘n’ roll, country, Stax, soul and blues. Songs such as ‘I Shall Be Released’ and ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’ were recorded here and would soon be on The Band’s debut record ‘Music From Big Pink’. In July ’68 their debut was released and follow-up ‘The Band’ was released in 1969. These two albums stand in history as some of the most vital albums ever recorded. ‘The Band’ is seen as their masterpiece including ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, ‘Up On Cripple Creek’, ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’.

In 1976, The Band staged a special farewell concert in San Francisco, The Last Waltz which is documented by many as the best live concert in music history. A string of special guests performed on the night; Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Dr John, Van Morrison, Muddy Waters among many others. This was beautifully captured on film by Martin Scorsese.

In 2007, Helm released ‘Dirt Farmer’ a haunting and beguiling set of folk and country songs. He won a Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk album later that year. His follow-up ‘Electric Dirt’ won him another Grammy in 2009 for Best Americana album. His last release ‘Ramble At The Ryman’, a live album, won him a third.

As Helm sung on ‘When I go Away’ from his ‘Electric Dirt’ album; ‘And then the sun’s gonna shine through the shadows when I go away’. The sun will shine brightly amidst Levon Helm’s gentle spirit and undeniable genius. He is now buried in Woodstock, next to Rick Danko.

Written by admin

July 22, 2012 at 11:39 am

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