I saw The Band over 30 times. They were my first concert way back when as a sophomore in high school. That night they tore up Merriwether Post Pavilion. In 1974 from January 15th through the 22nd, I saw The Dylan/Band: Before The Flood Tour six times in four cities. The last time I saw them was at Wolf Trap opening for John Prine. I took my daughter Morgan for her first ever concert. As much as I loved it, I think she was too young to appreciate the music, but she liked the tie-died Life Is A Carnival tee shirt I bought her.
One visit to New York City in 1981 at a small club I was fortunate to see an impromptu show by Steve Forbert. He was joined by Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Levon Helm. As great as the music was, it was made fantastic because during the break and after the show all four artists sat at our table. It remains a memory that has become almost surreal. All I can say is that they were down to earth, friendly, and gracious. They were cats you could hang with at the local bar or pool room. The clearest moment I have is that every time the waitress (her name was Rhonda and she was from Virginia and is the reason why we were so well seated and treated) brought the table drinks Levon would say in that beautiful soft southern drawl “thank you m’am”.
Every member of The Band, except Richard Manuel, would tell you Richard was their lead singer. But for me the voice of The Band was Levon. My first introduction to their music was his line “I pulled into Nazareth…” Hell, I never pulled out. He is considered by many as one of the best drummers of his and any generation, I cannot attest to that but I know the cat could play, and as he played he sang his ass off.
Over the past days so many appreciations of Levon have been written and read. They tell of his days as a boy in Arkansas, his stay as a teenager drummer in Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Dylan years, The Band, the Last Waltz, acting, The Band’s reemergence, the illness, Midnight Rambles, revived solo career and Grammy awards. I urge you to take time to read about this remarkable artist, man, friend, father and grandfather.
This is what I know. The following are links to what I consider are his greatest vocal performances, and they are what I want people to hear as a tribute to this American troubadour, this music legend.
When I Paint My Masterpiece – A Bob Dylan song that The Band and especially Levon added the masterstroke to.
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down – This is the live Last Waltz rendition and it’s revelatory. Levon sings as if a gun is held to his head and his life depended on this particular take. It’s one of the greatest vocals of all time.
Atlantic City – Bruce Springsteen may have written it, but The Band and especially Levon own it.
Tennessee Jed – From his last solo album, Electric Dirt. His voice, ravaged by time and illness, still conveys his power and the innate good natured inflection I love about his voice. And his pitch, as always, perfect.
So rest easy Levon, we here know the drum stool is now taken in Heaven, you and Rick and Richard can start a band.