Just as Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees clings on to life, we recently learned that Levon Helm from The Band has lost his battle with cancer at the age of 71. For a group filled with such Americana, Helm was the only member who was actually from the States, with the rest Canadians. They might not have been the biggest act of all time, but their influence was huge and their music timeless.
Seeing the list of artists who have paid tribute to Helm (Bob Dylan, Elton John, Sheryl Crow etc.) is testament to his standing in music history and a reminder of the quality of Robbie Robertson’s songwriting. Songs like The Weight and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down are parts gospel, folk, country and rock and are a part of the American fabric. As a singing drummer with a timber in his voice that breathed life and authenticity into Robertson’s words (often filled with Biblical imagery and tales of generations ago), Levon Helm was one of the greats.
Here are three songs. The first is my all-time favourtie song from The Band and featured on one of their latter albums, Northern Lights, Southern Cross. Acadian Driftwood is a Canadian / American history lesson with wondrously ragged harmonies, tales of ice-fishing, a persecuted people and a French-sung ending to get the hairs on the back of the neck standing.
Song Two is a Bob Dylan song in its greatest ever performance, sung live by an all-star cast in the classic rock film about The Band, the Martin Scorcese-directed The Last Waltz from 1976. Are the lyrics of I Shall Be Released spiritual or secular? Are they literal or metaphoric? It is the genius of Dylan and the beauty of The Band (who had been his backing group for some years in the 1960s). Performed by the finest pre-USA For Africa muscial ensemble, The Band, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Dr John – just incredible.
And Song Three is one I mentioned on the Report just a couple of weeks ago for Elton John’s 65th birthday, the song Levon. Elton was so inspired by The Band that he named this song after Levon Helm and even the entire sound of his Madman Across The Water album from 1971 owes an enormous debt to Americana sound of The Band. Taupin’s lyrics would’ve made Robertson proud and Levon Helm has just about the best tribute song in the history of rock.