Levon Helm, original member of The Band, passed away on April 19th, 2012. He was that rare drummer who was also a lead vocalist, and his Arkansas drawl was a great counterpoint to Richard Manuel’s falsetto and Rick Danko’s plaintive sound, driving timeless songs like The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, The Weight and Up On Cripple Creek. The Band was also Bob Dylan’s backing band on and off from 1965 to 1974, and released numerous albums that cut across all musical boundaries. It was these three voices that gave The Band’s music their definitive sound, creating music that later became defined as Americana, but was really just a melting pot of rock, rhythm and blues, and country.
The Band hit their height of popularity with their final concert. Filmed on Thanksgiving Day, November 25, 1976 by Martin Scorsese, the Band was joined by a group of friends to give them a final farewell. Well, a group of friends is a little tame. When your friends include Dr. John, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, and a guy named Bob Dylan, that last concert is a pretty special affair.
Considered by many to be the greatest rock and roll film ever made, Scorsese captured the Band in all their glory, showcasing their own amazing talents as well as the skills of their guests. Interspersed between the music are interviews with the members of The Band, conducted by Scorsese. These vignettes into the psyche of The Band are most illuminating, humorous and poignant at the same time, describing their experiences as a working band on the road for 16 years. My favorite story is Levon Helm, describing the Midnight Rambles he attended as a young man. Completely amazing.
I’m on my third copy of The Last Waltz, as I’ve owned it on VHS, DVD and now Blu-ray. (This does not include the vinyl or CD’s- in CD I have both the standard release (I had to re-purchase the standard CD again as the Dylan section on the box set was different than the original release, but I digress from my digression) and the 4-CD box set, but that’s a different story altogether) I can tell you, there’s a big difference in all three formats. Of course, the jump from VHS to DVD was like night to day. Better sound, better video. I wasn’t so sure what would be revealed when I got the Blu-ray, but was not dis-appointed.
It’s amazing to me what is lost in the transfer from what the director sees to what the consumer sees as the end result. The biggest revelation from my top-rated Blu-ray? – Eric Clapton’s “Ugh” when he breaks a string during Further On Up The Road. Robbie Robertson jumps in and fills, but EC is not happy. And when EC isn’t happy, sparks fly! Robertson lays down a solo for the ages, swinging the rock like a lantern in the wind, and then Clapton decides Now Is The Time. Incendiary, blazing, insane only come close, and when you think he’s done, there’s one more chorus to let you know he is NOT playing Silly Buggers. Top-rated Blu-ray brings all this to life in a way I’ve never seen. So worth it!
But even after the Last Waltz, The Band couldn’t stay off the road, and reformed again in 1983 with four original members (Robertson declined the invitation to join) and went on tour with the Cate Brothers filling in. I saw them at Graffiti, a Pittsburgh bar that held 600 people, (they closed in 2000) and, of course, they blew the house down. And what did you expect?
Consummate artists, still in their prime, they were amazing.
Levon Helm died of cancer, cancer of the throat. He underwent surgery, and when he got his voice back, he began to throw Midnight Rambles at his studio in Woodstock, NY. Backed with a band featuring his daughter, a few friends would show up the Rambles as well, including Rickie Lee Jones, Emmy Lou Harris, Chris Robinson of The Black Crowes, to name just a few, all made appearances at his musical parties. These Rambles were open to the public, and well attended by the locals. Lucky locals! He was performing right up through 2011 at the rambles, and festivals all over the country. Playing pretty much to the day he died, making timeless music that will stay with us for as long as Rock and Roll is played. He was a R&R icon, a unique voice in American music, member of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame since 1994.
Levon Helm will be missed, but not forgotten.