Like many, I grew up a fan of the Band. From an early age, I knew all about The Last Waltz, and how great a concert movie it was. Later, someone loaned me a copy of The Basement Tapes, Bob Dylan's 1967 home recordings with the Band, which led me to pick up as many of the Band's records as I could. Along with mixing an amazing sense of eclectic musical tastes, the group possessed three killer singers. Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Levon Helm.
Helm took the lead on many of their best-known songs, including "The Weight," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and "Evangeline." His Arkansas drawl sounded like he had been traveling for decades, and knew the story behind every dusty road they sang about. His deeply American voice stood out so much, you never even thought that the rest of the band was Canadian. He was also a bad-ass rhythm & blues drummer that played with the feel of a jazz musician. I've heard a million bands try to recapture the freewheeling quality of the Band's music, but they often come off as too sloppy. The Band showed that you could sound carefree, yet have a tight groove to keep it all together.
I don't regret many things in my life, but I do regret talking myself out of going to see the last incarnation of the Band play in Charlotte in 1996. Rick Danko is one of my all-time favorite singers and bass players, and I really wish that I could have seen him in person. (Years later, the Band's keyboardist, Garth Hudson told me, "You and Rick would have gotten on great. You both like to laugh," and if that had been one of the last things I had ever heard on this earth, I would have been okay with that.) I sat in my car and cried the day that Rick Danko died, knowing that a great train had passed beyond the sunset.
In 2000, Levon Helm came to the Double Door Inn, playing drums with a blues band, the Barn Burners. He was battling throat cancer, and he could not sing, but he just wanted to hit the road, and play drums. I came rushing in from some video gig for the last part of the show. I walked through the venue's front door, and there he was. Levon Helm. Levon Freaking Helm. I stood on the side of the stage, and got ready to take a photo. As I took my first photo, Levon turned and smiled at me. I just froze, awed by the moment. I got to shake hands with him afterwards, and wished him well.
In the intervening years, Helm enjoyed a remarkable run. Three Grammy winning albums, a popular concert series, held at his studios in Woodstock, NY. All while still battling relapses of throat cancer. Helm was only singing occasionally when I saw him in 2011, but the sheer joy of seeing him play up close outweighed his voice issues. The show was fantastic, and really gave Helm the chance to shine on drums. Watching him play, I noticed how he layed into the drum skins, which gave his hits on the snare drum a deeper tone. I'm really glad that I got to see him play one more time. I only wish that I had seen him more.
What can you say about someone that has had so much influence on the music you love? When those ideas have been passed around the world, and on to future generations? Next week, some kid somewhere will hear Music From Big Pink for the first time, and his ideas about American music will get blown out of the water. They will learn about Richard, Rick and Levon, and they will have the music, or the Last Waltz movie, and wonder what they would have said to them, if they'd had the chance.
Maybe they would have said what I got to tell Levon myself.
April 27, 2012