Last week, we lost Levon Helm (1940-2012) of the Band, who rocked the skins and sang at the same time, probably better than anyone has done it before or since. Don't tell me about that guy in Rare Earth--I know from experience that singing and playing simultaneously is an unusual but not really an exceptional skill. The truly remarkable and glorious thing about Levon is how he fit in so well with the others in the Band. As a musician, he was not one bit of a showoff. At the same time, Helm's gruff way of seizing the moment provided a stunning contrast with the group's other vocalists, the sweet singing Richard Manuel, and the tragic-comic Rick Danko.
Levon didn't write songs at the time, but he was Robbie Robertson's most forceful interpreter, carrying on the southern tradition of rock'n'roll (as he hailed from Arkansas) with raving authenticity. The others, coming from Canada, still managed to sound more believable than most of what was on the radio in 1968, when Music From Big Pink was released. At that time, with Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding (released in December 1967) leading the way, pop music was coming out of a freaky period and into something more honest, at least from my vantage point. The Band's ensemble playing and singing, and Levon's deep, dry drumming brought a new realism to the era. It's said that when the British group Fairport Convention started working on their traditional folk and rock fusion Liege and Lief, they woke up in the house they shared every day to records playing...the music of the Band.
I am still in awe of what Levon did on the first two albums, Music from Big Pink and 1969's The Band, the remarkable live LP Rock of Ages (recorded on New Year's Eve, 1971-72), Northern Lights--Southern Cross (1975) and his recent solo albums. The Band reconvened in 1993, without Robertson, and made fine records as well. There, Levon's drumming is as groove-filled as ever, and who would have guessed that he could take En Vogue's pop-R&B hit "Free Your Mind" (from The Band's High on the Hog, 1996) and make it sound like a Levon Helm song? Who was the most exuberant musician on Bob Dylan's Before the Flood (recorded live on the Dylan & the Band tour, mostly in February 1974)? That huge, rolling beat could come from no other place.
Levon's work just got richer upon his death, because it has a quality that can never be re-created. And I'm assuming that you know the Band's music, or else you wouldn't be reading this. If not, it's something that can be retrieved fairly easily. Thank you,