|Levon Helm at the Electric Factory 1969|
It is very sad that Levon Helm died today. I was lucky to see The Band twice early on in their history. The first show was at the old Electric Factory in Philadelphia in the spring of 1969. The second was at Tufts University in the fall of 1970. Both times the music was excellent and I was lucky to see them in very intimate venues.
My love affair with The Band began after a trip to Roberts Records in New London, CT with Guitar Johnny Nicholas in the summer of 1968. I was already a committed Dylan fan at the time, so an album by his former backing band was a natural fit for me. Johnny had seen Dylan play in Hartford in 1965 and had met Robbie and some of the other band members after the show, so he knew the album had a good chance to be great. He was right. On his recommendation, I bought the record.
I took home Music From Big Pink with a lot of anticipation and immediately fell in love. From the opening notes of Tears of Rage, I was drawn into The Band's slice of musical Americana. Although at the time I didn't know or understand the background and relationship between the music on Music From Big Pink, John Wesley Harding and the Basement Tapes, I knew I liked what I heard on that record.
The first Band records took a lot of listening. Although the music was simple, it was also dense and complex at the same time. There were layers of instruments with multiple voices that needed to be sorted out over time. Rick and Richard often sounded alike, but from the beginning there was no mistaking Levon's vocals. He was the voice that made The Band unique. Although he only sang lead on The Weight on the first album, he left his vocal mark with that classic song.
Later, his vocal contributions on Rag Mama Rag, Up On Cripple Creek, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, King Harvest (Has Surely Come) and Strawberry Wine defined the sound and the soul of the group. Levon was the heart of the rhythm section, but he was more than that. He was a symbol of the connection of the group to America and the rural values and events that they sang about so well. No song captures this better than King Harvest:
Recently I had a chance to go to the Ramble when Robert Earl Keen and his band played there. I didn't do it. I am really kicking myself now. Let's all have a drink tonight for the Man Behind the Drums and remember all the great music he left us. Thank you, Levon.