Saturday, April 28, 2012

Remembering Levon Helm

We lost a great musical talent when Levon Helm passed away on April 19 at age 71. Though he enjoyed a renaissance in the last 10 years that saw him win Grammy awards, I will remember him mostly for his groundbreaking work in the legendary rock group known simply as the Band.
Though guitarist Robbie Robertson wrote many of their most important songs, it was Helm’s singing that often brought life to them. Their greatest work was recorded on their self-titled second album.
More than 40 years later, it is easy to underestimate the Band’s impact when they had their commercial breakthrough in 1968. At that time, rock and roll remained drenched in psychedelia, and free-form expressionistic jamming was the style of choice. Bands with silly names like the Strawberry Alarm Clock and Vanilla Fudge were on the scene. 
Looking back, it seems obvious that the time was ripe for a breath of fresh air. The Band, whose very name was a reaction to the times, arrived on the scene that year with their debut album ‘Music from Big Pink.’ Instead of the jamming that was popular, the Band emphasized ensemble work and their expertise on their debut record produced songs like ‘The Weight.’ 
However, the Band released their best album in late 1969. That self-titled album mentioned earlier would haunt them in some respects because it provided a remarkably high standard to reach for the rest of their careers. The fullness and richness of these recordings grow stronger with each listen. The album is full of great songs.
The best song ever written about dignity is ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ and is the album’s best song. Written by Robertson, it was Helm’s vocals that brought passion to it and is a big reason it remains so memorable.
“Virgil Kane is the name, and I rode on the Danville train,” Helm sang as the song began. The song contains haunting imagery as vivid as any Matthew Brady photo, and it conveys the despair of lives that are in shambles. This song produces images that are cold and stark, and Helm’s singing projects despair, pride and strength all at once. 
The album has other strong songs. ‘Up on Cripple Creek’ is funky and made the Top 30 on the singles chart. ‘Rag Mama Rag’ is fiddle driven and embraces the joys of sharing music in unusual situations. ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’ paints a picture of a late afternoon sunset in summertime. 
Rarely had a group been blessed with so many excellent vocalists. Helm, bassist Rick Danko, and pianist/organist Richard Manuel shared the vocal chores. Manuel’s sweet swinging on ‘Whispering Pines’ is worth the price of the album alone. 
Following this album, they continued touring and churning out albums until the late 70s. However, they decided to call it quits and their farewell concert is one of the best rock and roll movies ever. Called ‘The Last Waltz,’ it was a concert of epic proportions in which most of their contemporaries performed. 
After a few years, four of them (minus Robertson) reformed and toured. Kind of like a boxer who cannot stop returning to the ring, they played on and on and on. However, that should not take away any of the luster of their career. 
In their own way, they changed the direction of rock and roll and helped carry it out of the excess of the late 60s. Though their name was bland, there was nothing bland about the group itself. Musicianship of this caliber comes along only so often.
Levon Helm was a big reason the Band was great, and he will be missed.

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