Blues for Levon Helm

April 18, 2012

…The Band was — is — The Band. The Great American Band. In part, perhaps, because they were mainly Canadian, which made them only sort-of Americans. Which made them outsiders, which lent them perspective. Which let them see straight into the heart of the wounded, noble land to the South. For them, all of America was the South.

Too often these sort of essays drift into history lessons, dates get tossed out. We get reminded again that Ronnie Hawkins was cousin to Dale; that he took Levon Helm (born in Marvell, 1940) with him to Toronto and collected the best musicians from rival bands: Robertson, Rick Danko, Manuel and Garth Hudson.

Except for Robertson, who was a guitarist, they were all multi-instrumentalists. Helm was mainly the drummer, but he was playing guitar by the time he was 8 years old and added the mandolin soon afterward. Danko played bass, guitar, violin and trombone; Manuel played piano, harmonica, drums and sax. Hudson may have been the most accomplished — he got an extra $10 per week as the band’s “music instructor” — and considered his rock ’n’ roll organ playing a hobby, something to fill the time while he was preparing for a serious music career.

While they never went in for ostentatious instrument-switching on-stage, in the studio it sometimes seemed that it didn’t matter who was playing what. Their songs could sound like a chuck wagon full of marching band instruments falling down a mountainside in a tornado, but they were also full of subtle colors, of shifting timbres.

It helped that they could sing. Helm had his plaintive dirt farmer’s drawl, sweat-soaked and seeded with grit, Danko a gliding, frictionless tenor and Manuel — whom Helm and Danko considered the lead singer — moved between a keening falsetto and a dark, murderous baritone. With occasional support from Robertson (who only sang lead on a handful of songs) they formed roughhewn harmonies, approximate and relative but with the odd, raw beauty of a Howard Finster painting.

The Band was an uncommon institution in that it had three distinctive yet complementary vocal colors — Manuel’s indigo of broken hurt, Danko’s maroon melancholy and the earth-toned uplift of Helm, whose instrument was as homely and human as original sin, yet grazed by grace. In recent years he might have have lost a little lung power and shaved a bit off the top end of his tenor, but he remained our most empathetic and shiver-inducing singer, a vocal actor able to convey nuances of character and circumstance through infinitesimal adjustments and accommodations of breath and tone.Like Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen, Helm was most effective when he’s working the spaces between the notes, gliding and eliding, hanging just behind (or slightly forward of) his tacked-down beat, smearing his frayed homespun voice over the tracks like salted butter.

Richard and Rick are gone now, and they are saying Levon — the one who sang “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” to name but three — will be with us just a little while longer. Oh, won’t you stay …

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