Some concerts stick with you when you wonder if it’s the last time you’ll ever see a particular performer. Levon Helm was a mystery that way.
He took his place behind the drums positioned downstage at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles on Aug. 15, 2010, the audience clearly relieved that he could still sing and drum. His voice was ragged and soulful in his prime; the mere fact that throat cancer had not claimed his life soon after the diagnosis in the late 1990s made his presence something of miracle. The beauty of the night was that Levon Helm was not there to say goodbye — he was still putting his stamp on what it means to be an American musician steeped in Southern roots and brilliant, expository songwriting.
Helm died Thursday at the age of 71 , surrounded by family, friends and band mates. The headlines all made note of his role in the Band, but his ethos was so much more.
“Don’t Do It” — 1971
“Anna Lee” — 2011
Prior to that summer tour, the only way to see Helm was to travel to his barn in Woodstock, N.Y., that had been converted into a concert stage. The initial purpose of his barn concerts and New York area shows, titled the Midnight Ramble in 2005, was to cover medical bills. In the months before he started those shows in July, Helm and his band were philanthropically active, performing for children with cancer at Sloan Kettering Memorial Hospital in New York City and doing benefits for Sloan-Kettering and mental health, substance abuse and developmental disability services in Orange County, N.Y. He played for high-schoolers so they would know the blues and for the patriots win Kingston, N.Y., who turned out for ArmedForces Appreciation Day.
The Midnight Rambles at the Levon Helm Studios began In June 2005 with Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson and by year’s end Emmylou Harris, Ollabelle, Pinetop Perkins and the Bennett Brothers would pass through the barn doors. The guest list in early 2006 only got more impressive — Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, Rickie Lee Jones, Donald Fagen — with local acts still providing support on the bills.
It was DIY community building at its best, an extension of the love for the Band that was seen in Martin Scorsese’s concert film “The Lst Waltz.” Yes, some of the biggest musical stars of the 1960s and ’70s appeared on that San Francisco stage, but there was a sense that Helm would not have been playing with them if he did not respect them. The presence of Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield seemed like a group decision; Neil Diamond, whom Robertson was producing, was a case of product placement.
As a singing drummer who occasionally played mandolin, Helm holds a unique place in rock ‘n’ roll history. He moved from road warrior in the late 1950s and 1960s to a member of one of the strongest artistic outfits of the pre-punk 1970s, the Band, where his dirt growl provided an earthly tether to the heavenly voices of his bandmates the late Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. He gathered some well-known friends for a laid back recording, “Levon Helm and the RCO Allstars,” in 1977 and made a couple of solo album before reforming the Band without Robertson in 1983.
To some, there was no Band without Robertson because of his significant contributions as a songwriter, but over time it became increasingly clear the Levon Helm edition of the Band, especially after Manuel’s death in 1986. Original songs took a backseat to old country and blues, Bruce Springsteen and Dylan on those Band album in the 1990s, a starting point for Helm’s early 21st century career that yielded the Grammy winners “Dirt Farm and “Electric Dirt.”
Those solo albums included the songs of his guitarist/band leader Larry Campbell and his Woodstock buddy Happy Traum along with the songs of Muddy Waters, the Grateful Dead and Carter Stanley. When you looked at the photographs of the Band on their early records, they looked like their influences were the Civil War, sacred hymns and campfire songs. They didn’t sound like anyone else, they didn’t look like anyone else. Yet when Helm took that Greek stage with a 10-piece band behind him, he looked like a long lost uncle you were dying to see.
That show was a 20th century American music history lesson. He played songs from the Band, opening with “Ophelia” and including “The Shape I’m In,” “Long Black Veil,” “Chest Fever,” “It Makes No Difference” and “The Weight.” He unfurled ancient Delta blues (“Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”) and slid it alongside Lead Belly’s anti-D.C. diatribe “Bourgeois Blues,” Sam Cooke’s “(Ain’t That) Good News” and, with guest Steve Earle, the Rolling Stones’ country stomper “Sweet Virginia.” “I Shall be Released” represented his former employer, Bob Dylan.
His point, if there was one, was that American music has no boundaries, whether the composition comes from a hollow, New Orleans or Haight-Ashbury. More and more musicians are learning what Helm saw; more of them need to acknowledge him as an originator.