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Band - 1940-2012

  by Carl Bookstein

published: 16 / 4 / 2012

Band - 1940-2012


Carl Bookstein pays personal tribute to the Band drummer and singer Levon Helm, who died of throat cancer on April 19th

Levon Helm’s voice possessed true grit, as vital as the earth itself. He was a genuine American original. On April 19th, the legendary singer and drummer for the Band died at the age of 71 from throat cancer. Originating from Elaine, Arkansas, Helm’s was the Band’s authentic down south voice. He provided a model for Canadian songwriter Robbie Robertson’s often sweeping Dixie-inspired Band compositions. Helm as a singer was unforgettable. Helm made his way from Arkansas to Canada. There, along with the other members of The Band, he backed up Canadian rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Honing their musical chops on the back roads of Canada and America under the name of the the Hawks, Helm, guitarist Robertson, bassist Rick Danko, pianist Richard Manuel and organist Garth Hudson ultimately split from Hawkins and formed their own group. Famously The Band backed up Bob Dylan as the folk poet went electric. Helm was one of three primary singers for the Band along with Danko and Manuel, but his voice- that of an ornery southern preacher, a weathered Confederate soldier- was unmistakable. In the late 1960s, the Band put out the masterpiece album 'Music from Big Pink' (1968) followed by the equally stately self titled album 'The Band' (1969). Levon Helm’s voice can be heard on such famed classics as 'The Weight', 'The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down' and 'Up on Cripple Creek'. Listening to The Band for me was like going to church. In their rich pastoral sound I found a true home. Their music was exquisite Americana. I saw a reunited formation of The Band (without Robertson), several times both in the 1980s and 1990s. The songs were uniformly strong and their brilliant playing blessed my life. Levon Helm fought with throat cancer since the 1990s. Diagnosed in 1997, he lost his voice but got it back again and soldiered on. His 2007 solo album. 'Dirt Farmer'. is rustic and rich, down home and deep, including the sweet sound of the poignant ballad, 'Anna Lee'. For another real treat, listen to The Band perform the Bruce Springsteen composition 'Atlantic City' on their 1993 album 'Jericho' as Helm switches from his signature drum kit to mandolin. Backstage with the reunited Band in 1984 at the Second Chance bar in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I had the opportunity to observe Levon Helm holding court. He seemed like a truly gracious prince as he greeted one guest after the next, while sitting stretched out on a backstage sofa. His charm and talent were entirely authentic. The Band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994. In recent years, Helm held a series of signature concerts in his barn in Woodstock, including many special guests. The shows known as “Midnight Rambles” helped to pay his medical bills. According to the humble Levon Helm, they were “something to pay the rent with.” The Band’s famed 1976 concert, the Martin Scorsese filmed 'The Last Waltz' luckily would not be the end of the road for The Band. Helm was part of a music so pristine and homespun that it filled you with religion. In their time, the Band changed the whole landscape of rock music. Levon Helm as The Band’s authentic southern voice was one of a kind. He will be greatly missed.

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