R.I.P. Levon Helm: The Heartbeat of Americana

Categories: R.I.P.

Levon Helm Band 1.jpg
Christopher Victorio
Levon Helm performing at San Francisco's Outside Lands festival in 2009.

While they never became superstars, the men in The Band cut two of the most influential albums of the '60s -- Music From Pig Pink and The Band. Unlike other groups, The Band eschewed flashy musicianship in favor of a dense, smoky sound that emphasized group dynamics over the talents of individual members. Their combination of folk, blues, rock, soul and New Orleans shuffle created the template for what is now called Americana -- America's roots music reinvented for listeners that were put off by the pure sounds of acoustic folk and Chicago blues.

The Band had a timeless sound, emphasized by the bedrock timekeeping of Levon Helm, who passed away yesterday at the age of 71. Helm played with a deep, muted bass drum and tom toms tuned down to emphasize the overtones of their lower range. He was an excellent timekeeper and, like the rest of the band, his playing didn't call attention to itself. He could rock out when it was called for, but most of The Band's tunes were cinematic, mid-tempo explorations of mood and feeling. His innate blend of swing, drive, and economy sounded effortless, but was developed over decades of playing in bars for dancers.

Helm was also a great singer. The rhythmic sense he had as a drummer allowed him to play around with beat and melody when he sang lead on tunes like "The Weight," "Rag Mama Rag" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." His voice had the parched wide-open sound of an Arkansas farmer, with a laid back hint of country blues in his enunciation. When he sang "Up on Cripple Creek" he made the words crackle like cold water bouncing over the stones in a backcountry creek bed.

Helm grew up in Arkansas and left high school to go on the road with Ronnie Hawkins and his band. After a series of personnel shifts, Helm became the band's leader, playing alongside Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson. They left Hawkins to become Levon and the Hawks, still playing covers of rockabilly, blues and rock. Blues singer John Hammond Jr. introduced them to Dylan, who hired them to be his backing band. Dylan was still in transition from folkie to rocker, and the band endured nights of endless booing for disgruntled fans. Helm quit the band, but after the end of the tour, his band mates asked him to rejoin. They settled down in a big pink house near Dylan's home in Woodstock and started jamming. In the winter of 1967 they wrote the songs that became Music From Big Pink, signed with Capitol Records and went back on tour with Dylan. They started touring on their own after the release of The Band.

The albums were slow sellers and by 1978, musical and personal differences, exacerbated by drugs and alcohol, led to The Band's break up. Helm took part in various reunions of the group, but mostly went his own way. A heavy smoker, he was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 90s, bouncing back with a series of low key concerts he hosted in his recording studio/barn in Woodstock, NY. Dubbed The Midnight Rambles, they led to a contract with Vanguard Records, tours with his own roots rock ensemble and three Grammy winning albums -- Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt, and Ramble at the Ryman, records that included guest shots by Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, and Ralph Stanley. Like his efforts with The Band, Helm's later efforts showed his mastery of American vernacular music combining blues, country, rock, R&B and folk with his polished timekeeping and soulful, understated vocals.

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