RIP Levon Helm: The Beat Behind The Band

Levon Helm, born May 26th 1940, drummer in The Band, last night lost his battle with cancer at the age of 71.
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Levon Helm, born May 26th 1940, drummer in The Band, last night lost his battle with cancer at the age of 71.

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The first time I heard The Weight by The Band, I knew I was hearing something special, nay, important. It’s one of those songs that just made up the fabric of my childhood, I probably heard it on a daily basis for a while, either coming from my CD player while having breakfast or being sung by my father. It’s a joyous, intelligent, brilliantly structured piece of rock and roll, and it will never be bettered.

Levon Helm sings the first words of The Weight, that incredible opening verse: “I pulled into Nazareth, was feeling ‘bout half past dead / I just needed a place where I can lay my head / I said “mister can you tell me where man might find a bed?” / He just grinned and he shook my hand, “no” was all he said”. His voice resonated with a warmth and richness that still moves me to this day, all the while keeping almost metronomic time. His percussion playing wasn’t flashy, but it was as tight as you could get, and along with Rick Danko on bass, they were the cornerstone on which The Band was built.

Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990s and had to undergo extensive radiation surgery to remove the tumour, something which permanently damaged his distinctive voice. Helm continued to be involved in music despite not performing himself, hosting concerts at his barn in Woodstock called “The Midnight Ramble”. These late night shows featured guests as illustrious as Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John, and represented the kind of communal, no-bullshit approach to music that was integral to The Band's philosophy.

By 2004 he claimed his voice was “80% recovered”, and in 2007 he released the Grammy Award winning album “Dirt Farmer”, his first studio album since 1982. The vivid texture he used to sing with had been replaced with a seasoned husk, like the sun setting on a John Ford Western. In 2009 Helm released “Electric Farmer” and his most recent record was 2011’s “Ramble at the Ryman”, a live performance featuring Helm reunited with Robbie Robertson as well as other musicians including Chuck Berry and Buddy & Julie Miller. Both his last two records won the Grammy for Best Americana Album.

Ever since cancelling a series of gigs recently people have speculated as to Helm’s health, and last night it was confirmed that he had lost his battle. If you only listen to one song today, I urge you to go and listen to The Weight. When I hear the opening bars it still puts me back in my kitchen, the smell of coffee and bread filling up the room, a comforting warmth surrounding me, the music pulsing in the walls.

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