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Levon Helm Sings!!


by Mark T. Gould

From Sound Waves Magazine, August 2006.
Copyright © 2006 Mark T. Gould and Sound Waves Magazine.

It had to have been sometime last year, but the actual date escapes my mind. Sometimes, a revelation, no, a minor musical miracle, has a way of doing that.

At the time, I had heard that the Levon Helm Band was going to appear on the “Imus In the Morning” radio program, simulcast on television by MSNBC. I’ve been a huge fan of Helm’s since his days with the Band, where his voice, along with group mates Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, propelled a storytelling of Americana unmatched by any other popular act. Helm, though, seemed more than a voice, perhaps a conscience, of the stories that the Band foretold, leaning way back, and beyond, his upbringing in rural Arkansas.

For me, if there was a voice to the soundtrack of American history through American music, it was Levon Helm’s. And, that voice could take you other places, too, like the frenzy of a Saturday night juke joint followed by a Sunday morning gospel tent revival. Even more so, beyond his singing and playing, I was overjoyed, and stunned, by his acting prowess in movies such as “The Right Stuff” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the latter of which may, for my money, have been one of the finest, most underrated and understated, acting performances in modern movie history. I saw him perform live more times than I can count, first with the original Band, then, as a solo, and, later, as an acoustic duo with Danko, and finally leading the reformed Band in last two decades of the 20th century.

That is, Levon Helm’s century, musically and artistically. And I was a fan, trying to follow his whole remarkable artistic journey.

Then, like many of his fans, I read the devastating news that he was stricken with throat cancer. He would survive, probably as the result, more than anything, of a toughness bread by his Arkansas upbringing and years on the road.

But, the stories said, he would not sing again.

Thankful that I was that this great artist was regaining his health, as a fan, I was quite disturbed that I would not get to hear that majestic voice again. “Don’t Ya Tell Henry.” “Ain’t No More Cane.” “The Weight.” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” “Milk Cow Boogie.” “Junkyard Blues.” The closing coda of “The Right Stuff.”

And on and on. And, as far as I could see, over and out.

After he regained his health, Helm manned the drum kit again, playing behind a number of combos, finally settling into the current Levon Helm Band, fronted by the extraordinary harp player and blues singer Little Sammy Davis. They had all but become the house band for Don Imus’ show, appearing on it many times prior to last year. Yet, it was a bit bittersweet to watch Helm, clearly enjoying himself behind his kit, but not singing.

So, I taped that show a year ago, and watched it that very night. Sammy sang the first song, and, after a commercial, Imus reintroduced the band. I heard Helm count off the tune, if memory serves it might have been “Don’t Tell…Henry,” but that really doesn’t matter.

The camera came in close on Helm’s classic face. He turned to his right, faced into a microphone, and began to sing, as strongly and forcefully as ever.

I got tears in my eyes, and they started to roll down my cheeks.

Levon Helm sings!

For me, and his many other fans, it wouldn’t seem it could get any better than that, but it has. Helm has recently made available, via his web site and now in wider distribution, two audio and video volumes of his classic “Midnight Ramble,” concerts that take place, with unannounced special guests like Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris and Donald Fagen, at his Levon Helm Studios barn on Saturday nights in Woodstock. Everyone brings a dish, eats, walks his property and then settles in for the show, seemingly a throwback to his days as a young boy in his native Arkansas, seeing revues like the Rabbit’s Foot Minstrel Show perform for locals inside circus tents. The “Midnight Ramble” performances, as these releases show, are stunning.

Even better, Helm has also released, via the site and elsewhere, the audio of the classic 1977 New Year’s Eve performance of his first post-Band group, the RCO All-Stars, which included Steve Cropper, Duck Dunn, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John and a host of others, at the Palladium in New York City. The amazing array of talent in that band simply confirms what his fans know-everyone wants to play with Levon Helm, and his talent, and his sharing, and his good will, brings out the best in all of them.

Naturally, I was in the front row for that long-ago concert. Just like, one of these days, I hope to be in the front row for a Ramble, listening to that gorgeous voice tell its stories again.

Levon Helm sings! Yes, it doesn’t get any better than that.

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