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Redemption Songs

Levon Helm Joins Huntington's Last Hombres

by Steve Matteo

From The Long Island Press, January 2003. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

Levon & the Last Hombres
Levon Helm w/ The Last Hombres

Huntington may not turn out to be the next Liverpool, Seattle, Detroit or Manhattan, but it certainly boasts its share of musical talent. From rock steady stalwarts like The Bluebeats to singer-songwriters like Cathy Kreger, the North Shore hub's scene boasts some of the more diverse and accomplished musicians on the Island -- particularly in the roots, reggae, acoustic and jazz genres. Combine that with venues that bring in established live acts (IMAC) and spots that support up-and-coming talent (Chesterfields), and what you have is a scene destined to spawn performers who gain attention beyond the suburban enclave.

Such as the Last Hombres.

[cover art]
The Hombres' newest album, Redemption, has just been released by Koch Records -- the label home to such varied acts as legendary singer-songwriter Carole King, death-metal gods Opeth and Long Island's own Public Enemy. This sophomore effort (the band self-released an eponymous debut in 1998) should quickly establish the group as solid purveyors of American roots rock. Redemption is loaded with no-frills '50s-styled rock that echoes Johnny Otis, Gram Parsons and the New Riders of the Purple Sage.

And while that in and of itself may not seem like enough to catapult the band to instant success, the Huntington-based quartet does have something of an ace up its collective sleeve: Levon Helm, the former drummer of The Band, has become a permanent member. But the addition of Helm is not merely a case of adding star power to the group, it's the perfect marriage of styles: a group with a roots-rock base and a drummer with a country-and-blues-flavored musical history that dates back to the 1950s.

The band's first incarnation effectively began in the '70s, when guitarist/vocalist Paul Schmitz, then just a high-schooler, started up a band with another bassist/vocalist named Michael Meehan. The band fizzled, and Schmitz went on to be in several cover bands. Along the way, he dabbled in various musical styles, including Southern-rock, and enjoyed a stint with Huntington-based bar band Old #7. But after nearly eight years of live performing, Schmitz wanted to move on from the grueling nightly schedule.

Following 12 years of being away from the scene, Schmitz reconnected with Meehan and they rekindled their musical relationship. Meehan eventually brought lead guitarist/vocalist Russ Seeger into the fold, and the Last Hombres began to take form. The group had many different drummers, but according to Schmitz, "Nothing really clicked."

It was Schmitz who was responsible for bringing Helm into the fold. "It was a dream of mine to have Levon play in the group," says Schmitz, who called Helm on the urging of New Riders' pedal-steel guitarist Buddy Cage. "My hope was he would just play on the new record." After Helm played on several sessions for the album, Schmitz received a call from the drummer, who said, "I want to be in the band." Initially not understanding exactly what he meant, Schmitz got the message when Helm emphatically added, "I want to be in your band!"

While many fans remember Helm solely for his contributions to The Band -- the mythical quintet that backed Bob Dylan and recorded some of the most important albums in rock history -- the drummer has been very busy since the group broke up in 1976. Long considered the most distinctive vocalist to sit behind the drums for any rock group (having sung such hits as "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down"), Helm continued playing in various configurations of The Band, released three excellent albums (Jericho, High on the Hog, Jubilation) with the group when they reformed in 1983 without Robbie Robertson, and released three solo albums. He also appeared on many recordings by other artists, toured with his own supergroup, the RCO All Stars, and with other groups including the Cate Brothers, Ringo Starr's All-Star Band and the Crowmatix. In addition, he is currently part of another musical unit, The Barn Burners, a bluesy group that also includes the vocals of his daughter, Amy. In 1993 Morrow published Helm's autobiography, This Wheel's On Fire, co-written with Stephen Davis, and the drummer has had quite an impressive career in film as well: portraying the father of Patsy Cline (played by Sissy Spacek) in Coal Miner's Daughter, Michael Apted's 1980 biopic of the country singer; playing alongside Sam Shepard in Philip Kaufman's epic adaption of Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff; co-starring with Jane Fonda in Daniel Petrie's 1984 Emmy Award-winning, made-for-TV movie The Dollmaker; among other films. After having suffered a bout of throat cancer, the lone American from The Band now divides his efforts between playing a variety of instruments with The Barn Burners and playing drums with the Last Hombres. "I'll play with anyone that will have me," Helm jokes.

The congenial Southern gentleman who is quick to laugh and is excited as a teenager to be playing with the Last Hombres ("It's such an easy fit," he says of his new band. "It's all-American roots music, and that's where we live.") only seems unhappy when recalling his later years with The Band, particularly The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's documentary of the group's final performance at Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving of 1976. "It's a big damn rip-off," Helm says of the film. "It's pretty much a story of Robbie Roberston and Scorsese falling in love with each other and how much money they were going to make out of it."

But Helm is looking forward to the future with the Last Hombres and is excited about the live-music scene in general. "That's where you have the real music makers," he says. He is already writing songs with the other Last Hombres and the group will be showcasing several new songs at upcoming shows. There are other plans in the works as well, but regardless of what happens, as Schmitz says, "We'll play what we like."

The Last Hombres CD release party and performance will be at Leavy's Last Stop Café in Huntington Station on February 1.

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