It has been a very long time since weíve witnessed the kind of outpouring of affection and respect that has been showered on the memory and legacy of Levon Helm since the passing of the iconic musician last week.
The appreciation for what this Arkansas native created and how he carried himself in his fifty plus years of singing, drumming, writing, recording, and touring is more than a little heartwarming and a reminder that even in this era of pre-fabricated acts and artists, that unique, soulful music created with one foot in tradition and the other tilling new ground was not going to be relegated to the out-basket as long as Levon was around.
Like those of so many CKUA listeners, who sent a stream of requests for Levon-driven songs to our pledge room during the spring fundraiser last week, my memories of recorded and live performances delivered by this drum, harp and mandolin-playing artistic beacon are etched as clearly as the specific days they were initially absorbed or witnessed. It makes no matter whether it was listening to The Bandís second album in a friendís basement as a young teenager, as a young adult attending a performance of 'The Last Waltz' at the Princess Theatre on Edmontonís Whyte avenue, or as a rabid fan at the famed Nickelodeon on Yonge Street in Toronto and other gigs that ran right up to the last time he appeared in Alberta when headlining at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival two summers ago - there is nothing remotely hazy about any of those memories.
He consistently came across as the member of The Band who kept his hands close to the soil and that denim shirts and jeans, a great sounding drum kit, a hot band and an audience within spitting distance was a hell of lot better way to chart a course than trading it all in for silk shorts, a designer jacket, a table at an upscale restaurant and the company of Hollywood executives. This is probably why, when you look at Helmís discography compared to that of Robbie Robertson, there is absolutely no comparison to the output of the two after 1976.
For Helm the inspiration to make music never seemed to waver and he even ended up creating a far better body of Hollywood-associated work than the one his estranged bandmate put together through the eighties and nineties.
Helm was so convincing playing the role of Loretta Lynnís father in 'Coal Minerís Daughter', opposite Sissy Spacekís Lynn, itís hard to imagine how or why he didnít land an Oscar nomination in the Best Supporting Actor category back in 1980. The same can be said for the powerful nature of his performance as ďthe old blind man with the radioĒ in 'The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada' that his old friend Tommy Lee Jones not only starred in, but produced and directed in 2005.
It seemed as though when Helmís friends called, he responded and was always up for a musical adventure.
His appearance at Edmontonís Northlands Coliseum in 1989 was one to remember as he had accepted an invitation to join the first incarnation of Ringo Starrís All-Starr Band.
The two were part of a mutual admiration society and Ringo pulled together an amazing band that included Rick Danko from The Band, Nils Lofgren and Clarence Clemons from the E Street Band, Dr. John, Billy Preston, Joe Walsh and another master drummer Jim Keltner.
Over the course of a couple of hours this ensemble tore through a songbook that took 15,000 rowdy and appreciative fans through what was essentially nothing but highlights from the history of rock and roll. Songs by artists who influenced the participants were sprinkled amongst pieces from The Beatles, Eagles, James Gang, and The Band catalogues and those that would eventually give Dr. John a seat in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The grin on Helmís face as he, Ringo and Keltner laid down the most amazing polyrhythmic grooves, was present all night long. The only exceptions in the program came when his focus switched to singing anthems like The Weight and Up On Cripple Creek or adding the back-up chorus to Dankoís rousing version of the Shape Iím In.
All these years later that night of catching Ringoís All-Starr Band stands out as the most unpretentious good time rock and roll show Iíve ever seen and Levonís great performances on some of those dates are thankfully posted on You Tube.
It was the same kind of vibe at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival two years ago as Helmís large ensemble presented one of the most joyful mainstage sets in the history of a festival that is renowned for great moments.
Once again, there was Helmís grin dominating everything as he leaned over his drum kit that was set on stage left a few feet from centre stage near the apron.
It didnít matter that the man who had released a trio of fine new recordings was experiencing another loss of his vocal instrument and was only able to sing a few verses of a few tunes throughout the show. His playing was still spot on, the vibe was incredible and he had assembled a band that unleashed explosive, soulful and adventurous arrangements of material that cut across his half-century of making music.
I even had one of those vicarious moments when my daughter Caitlin called me late one night from Nashville in the fall of 2008 when she was attending the Americana Music Conference. She had scored a ticket to Helmís appearance at the Ryman Auditorium which was being filmed.
ďI canít believe what I just witnessed, Dad. Iím outside the Ryman and I feel like Iím walking on air and I donít know if it will ever get any better than this,Ē said the young lady who had grown up in a household where Band and Helm albums were never very far from the turntable.
Caitlin had been fortunate to catch one of those shows that people are still talking about almost four years later.
ďIt was magical, Dad. Alison Krauss, Robert Plant, John Hiatt and Sheryl Crow all joined Levonís band and it was the best night of music Iíve ever heard,Ē added my daughter during that call that came shortly after she had also watched artists like Steve Earle and Allison Moorer walk through the turnstiles at the Ryman with the same kind of anticipation as the rest of the audience.
As much as the Ringo show, his Folk Festival appearance, and The Band reunion concerts all knocked me out, the one that stands out in my mind as ďthe best LevonĒ show I ever had the pleasure of attending was at the Nickelodeon Tavern in Toronto, as he returned to his old stomping grounds in 1980 with the Cate Brothers.
Caitlinís mom and I sat about 15 feet from the stage, and it seemed like most of the crowd attending the show at the intimate venue were personal friends of the former member of Ronnie Hawkins' Hawks, who owned Toronto from the late fifties through the mid-sixties.
Helm would come out from behind the drum kit periodically and let his harp or mandolin do the talking while his nephew Terry Cagle picked up right where he left off on the kit. Band staples like Goiní Back To Mempis, Up On Cripple Creek, The Weight, and Ophelia dotted a set that included material he had recorded on the RCO All-Stars album and the follow-up disc 'American Son'. Songs like China Girl, Watermelon Time In Georgia, Milk Cow Boogie, Washer Woman and Havana Moon were delivered with the same kind of nuance and intensity that Levon enjoyed while playing with The Band. What a night!
That voice in its prime was unlike any other voice weíve ever heard, and the songs that voice enveloped are of a timeless nature.
I guess itís time to pull Levon Helmís 'This Wheelís On Fire' off the shelf and read it again. And I think Iíll watch the last incarnation of The Band tear it up on Let It Rock!, the concert film that was shot in Torontoís Massey Hall in 1995 as The Band, Carl Perkins, Jeff Healey and others celebrated the sixtieth birthday of Ronnie Hawkins.
Thereís no debating it, Levon Helm left us with a mother-lode of great music that will be mined by generations to come.
Thereís a bit of a deserved buzz starting to surround Mel, and his wife Marti, who record and write as the Milkwood Dreamers. The duo recently released their debut album 'Hellfire & Bone' and Melís tune Devil Train is one of the three finalists in the Gospel/Inspirational category of the contest.
Understandably excited about the opportunity, both Smiths were heading down to North Carolina this week.
ďWe want our music to be like a glass of lemonade on a hot day. But we also think these songs have a backbone Ė theyíre rooted in stories about people and places we cherish along the road,Ē says Marti.
Two of the judges for this yearís contest are Wylie Gustafson and bluegrass star Claire Lynch; previous winners have been Gillian Welch and Tift Merritt.
Along with the competition, the Smiths will also be soaking up a lot of good music at Merlefest, which is named for Doc Watsonís late son.
Doc Watson, Roy Bookbinder, Deep Dark Woods, Vince Gill, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Donna The Buffalo, John Hammond, The Greencards, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Peter Rowan ,Tony Rice and the Tedeschi/Trucks Band are just a handful of the artists booked for the festival.
Good luck Mel!