SATURDAY, MAR 17, 2012 12:00 PM EASTERN DAYLIGHT TIME
Quick Hits: Rock icon Levon Helm plays live
The legendary Band drummer recounts stories from his long career and
rambles through two classics VIDEO
BY SALON STAFF
TOPICS:QUICK HITS, MUSIC
Rock legend Levon Helm — the drummer and a lead singer for the Band
— is batting 1.000 at the Grammys. Last month, when his “Ramble at
the Ryman” won best Americana album, he made it three in a row —
three nominations, three wins — following Grammy Awards for his two
previous albums, “Dirt Farmer” (2007) and “Electric Dirt” (2009).
Not bad for a 71-year-old survivor of throat cancer, who had once
lost his voice completely.
These days, a happy-to-be-alive Levon Helm presides over what he
calls “midnight rambles” — concerts in his Woodstock, N.Y., barn,
where he’s surrounded by musical friends and family, including his
daughter, singer Amy Helm. His voice may be raspy, but his energetic
drumming and high-beam smile can warm the coldest winter night.
Following rousing versions of “The Weight” and “Ophelia,” Helm
invites Marco Werman into his house for after-midnight conversation.
Watch Quick Hits: An Interview with Levon Helm on PBS. See more from
Like Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson, there is something fundamentally
authentic about Levon Helm. His music always felt real and if you
ever read his autobiography, “This Wheel’s on Fire,” you know he
doesn’t flinch from describing his long, rambunctious ride.
To anyone who grew up with Levon Helm and the Band, it’s a shock to
see him these days, a reminder of our own mortality. He’s gaunt,
almost spectral, and his voice is sometimes a whispery rasp. As
Levon explains, these midnight rambles — which have become a
tremendous success featuring a who’s who of guest stars – began as
“rent parties” organized by his manager Barbara O’Brien to pay the
mortgage on his farm and cover his medical bills. Weed and whiskey
were replaced by cancer treatments.
But Levon Helm is a survivor. A man who beat the odds. He’s a true
gentleman. And he can still drum like a demon for two hours
What’s important to Levon now is keeping his American roots music
alive, and passing it on. Lots of new groups seem to be tuning in –
from the Decemberists to Mumford & Sons and the Carolina Chocolate
We’re tempted to describe Levon as a lion in winter, but as you’ll
see in this interview with Marco Werman, he’s more like a Cheshire
cat with that incredible smile and a wry perspective on his life.
Don’t miss his rendition of a Turkish Army Band toward the end of
Our Quick Hits team was directed by John MacGibbon with Andy Bowley
as director of photography.
Watch Quick Hits: Levon Helm Performs “The Weight” on PBS. See more
from Sound Tracks.
I pulled into Nazareth was feelin’ about half past dead
Just need to find a place where I can lay my head
It’s one of the most famous opening lines to any rock song of the
past 50 years, and it was sung originally by drummer Levon Helm in a
clear, strong tenor voice with an unmistakable Arkansas twang. Since
it’s release in 1968, “The Weight” has become an essential part of
the American songbook.
This version — filmed for Quick Hits at a Feb. 4, 2012, midnight
ramble concert in Levon’s Woodstock, N.Y., barn is “The Weight” at
its most communal. A song in which everyone shares the burden and
Levon’s spirit hovers over the whole song but he turns over the
opening vocals to Woody Platt, a smooth, handsome country singer
from North Carolina, whose group, the Steep Canyon Rangers, shares
the stage with the Levon Helm Band. Larry Campbell, a Jackson Browne
look-alike who leads Levon’s outfit, joins in, followed by Brian
Mitchell singing about “crazy Chester” (Rick Danko’s role in the
original). Teresa Williams (Campbell’s wife) and Amy Helm (Levon’s
daughter) deliver some heartfelt harmonies.
Look closely and you’ll spot Donald Fagen of Steely Dan on piano.
Written by Robbie Robertson, “The Weight” is a masterpiece of
biblical allusions, enigmatic lines and iconic characters. But the
heart of the song has always been Levon Helm, who emerged from the
Southern cotton fields to play with Bob Dylan and become the only
American in a group that reintroduced America to its musical roots.
Watch Quick Hits: Levon Helm Performs “Ophelia” on PBS. See more
from Sound Tracks.
“Back porch music” is how Levon Helm describes what he and his band
perform in their midnight rambles. It’s the music of the traveling
tent shows he used to hear as a kid in Arkansas. Communal music,
everybody joining in. A little country. Some rockabilly. A touch of
gospel. A tinge of blues. Add the guitars, drums and horns that
power rock ‘n’ roll, and it’s the Levon Helm Band in action.
“Ophelia” is the perfect kind of song for this: old timey and fired
up — with plenty of humor and some clever lyrics:
Ashes of laughter
The ghost is clear
Why do the best things always disappear?
Please darken my door.
That’s Jim Weider on guitar, followed by Larry Campbell, the leader
of the band. Clark Gayton does the trombone honors, and we get to
hear Amy Helm (who has her own band, Ollabelle). Levon brings us
home with his distinctive drumming, ending in a flourish and a smile
of pure satisfaction.