- 19 Mar 13
Levon Helm is being celebrated at a special Dublin gig next month...
You can't get any closer to ubiquity than being called 'The Band'. Whose band? THE BAND!
By elevating 'the band' to front and centre status, ditching the need for a 'Joe Bloggs and...' Robbie Robertson's crew created a whole new musician-led, music-driven way of thinking. Put crassly, they invented the muso. Like almost all the American greats The Band were in fact Canadian, or at least formed in Canada. Levon Helm had moved up to Toronto from his native Arkansas with frontman Ronnie Hawkins and over time Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson joined by a process of accretion as Hawkins poached the best musicians on the Toronto scene from his rivals. As The Hawks they honed their performance to become the best backing group in town. But the grind of churning out the same show night after night led them to split from Hawkins in 1964 and they released a couple of singles as the Canadian Squires and Levon and the Hawks. They also continued to work as backing musicians and Helm, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson played together on John Hammond's So Many Roads album, leading him to recommend them to Bob Dylan, who was looking for musicians to tour with. Initially Dylan hired Robertson and Helm but they held out for a deal that would see the Hawks become The Band and join Dylan as a readymade unit. Their initial tours with Dylan were characterised by often critical responses from audiences who had come predisposed to the folksy, protest singer side of Dylan and who often reacted angrily to the souped-up electric rock The Band added to the stew. Helm in particular became so disheartened that he left and sat out the subsequent world tour, working on an oil rig in the Mexican Gulf.
With the release of their debut Music From Big Pink in 1968 and the following year's The Band, they established themselves as part of the same emergent country rock movement as The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Their influence is credited with shaping the sound of The Beatles' Let It Be and the Stones' rootsier early '70s output. As they moved wholeheartedly into the spotlight cracks began to emerge in their once unshakeable unity. Levon Helm in particular began to feel a deep unease at Robbie Robertson's authoritarian leadership and contested Robertson's claims to have been virtually the sole songwriter in the outfit, contending instead that the songs were collaborative works to which each member brought their part.
The Band continued to record and tour, both under their own steam and with Dylan. However, with the cracks widening Robertson called a halt, planning to mark the end of The Band with what he conceived of as 'the best music film that's ever been made'. The Last Waltz was filmed in late 1976 by Martin Scorsese and features collaborations with Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins and a number of other high-profile guests. The accompanying soundtrack was put on ice while their contractual obligation to Capitol Records was fulfilled with the Islands album, leaving the way clear for a new deal with Warners for the release of The Last Waltz.
Freed from the constraints of The Band with their eventual break-up in 1999, Helm returned to an idea he had long fostered and established, his Midnight Rambles, a gig in his house-cum-studio, The Barn in Woodstock. Conceived in the spirit of early twentieth century 'medicine shows' they were high spirited celebrations of music and life, something he held very dear having come through a protracted battle with throat cancer.
Having initially almost completely lost his voice, Helm fought to regain the ability to sing and, in 2007 released Dirt Farmer, which won a Grammy, as did its successor, 2009's Electric Dirt. He couldn't survive the return of the cancer, alas, and died on April 19, 2012. The anniversary of his death will be marked with a tribute concert featuring The Walls, Republic Of Loose, The Mighty Stef, The Lost Brothers, Gavin Glass, Valerie Francis, The Group, The Trouble Pilgrims who feature members of The Radiators From Space, Pete Cummins and more. Proceeds from the Sugar Club gig will go to the Irish Cancer Society. See facebook.com/LevonHelmTributeDublin for details.