by Robert Wilkinson
Levon Helm was a unique musical talent. Today we celebrate his birthday through his life and music, and as he made clear, this is a time for “tears of joy” at his recent passing on April 19.
Since I created a huge tribute for him several weeks ago, I figure it's okay if I don't add more to the considerable body of work assembled then. As I wrote, Levon was originally from Arkansas, and once he was recruited by rockabilly great Ronnie Hawkins, the legend began. I’ll give you a few pieces of his bio from AMG:
Levon Helm wore many musical hats throughout his long career, including multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, impresario, studio owner, studio engineer, and producer. He grew up working on a farm in Arkansas; his first instrument was guitar, which he began playing at age eight, but after seeing the F.S. Walcott Rabbits Foot Minstrels, he decided to switch to drums.... Accompanied by his sister Linda on washtub bass, he played various fairs and civic club shows until forming his first group, the Jungle Bush Beaters, while in high school.
After seeing an Elvis Presley concert, Helm became keenly interested in rock & roll and musicians like Bo Diddley. Eventually, he moved to Memphis, where he began sitting in with Conway Twitty. Later, he was discovered by a fellow Arkansan, rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, who asked the 17-year-old Helm to join the Hawks, his backing band. The group soon relocated to Toronto…
In the early '60s in Toronto, Helm and Hawkins recruited the rest of the members of the group that would become the Band, adding guitarist Robbie Robertson, pianist Richard Manuel, organist Garth Hudson, and bassist Rick Danko to the lineup. After numerous road trips with Hawkins, the group grew tired of the singer's abrasive manner, and they re-formed as Levon & the Hawks... Shortly after, they changed their name back to the Hawks. In the mid-'60s, Bob Dylan decided to electrify his sound and wanted the Hawks to be his backing band. After putting up with too many boos at Dylan's newly electrified shows in 1965, Helm decided he'd had enough, and went back to Arkansas, thinking he would leave the music business behind him forever.
But Helm returned to action in mid-1967, when the Hawks (since renamed simply the Band) began working on Music from Big Pink, the first in a string of classic records that made them one of rock's most legendary acts.
Today I found a LOT of great performances featuring Levon and his Bandmates from the earliest performances right up to 2010. Without further ado, here’s the magnificent Levon Helm!
First, here’s some very early film footage of Levon on the drums with the Hawks backing Ronnie Hawkins in 1959 doing "I Need Your Loving"
Now we go to some live shows!
Here’s a live performance of Ronnie Hawkins with the Band in 1976 doing "Who Do You Love."
I found 19 minutes of pure gold from “The Band” live in Pittsburgh 1970! Here's a four song set of "Time to Kill," "The Weight," "This Wheel's on Fire," and "Up on Cripple Creek"
We now go to some footage of an event few have heard of, but it made history! From one of the video posts, "Festival Express is a rousing record of a little-known, but monumental, moment in rock n' roll history, starring such music legends as Janis Joplin, The Band, and the Grateful Dead. Set in 1970, Festival Express was a multi-band, multi-day extravaganza that captured the spirit and imagination of a generation and a nation. What made it unique was that it was portable; for five days, the bands and performers lived, slept, rehearsed and did countless unmentionable things aboard a customized train that traveled from Toronto, to Calgary, to Winnipeg, with each stop culminating in a mega-concert. The entire experience, both off-stage and on, was filmed but the extensive footage remained locked away -- until now. A momentous achievement in rock film archeology, Festival Express combines this long-lost material with contemporary interviews nearly 35 years after it was first filmed."
For your enjoyment, the 9-part story of The Festival Express, complete with all performances!
This one features the Band - Part 5
These are unreleased outtakes from the final show of the Festival Express tour. The video is raw camera footage, with a time code and symbol on screen at all times. The quality is rough, but the performances and footage are amazing.
A bit of introduction to this remarkable man via the Band’s first album. Here’s what the world first heard in 1968. This kind of music had never been done before, and opened the door to a thousand variations done by the proverbial “10,000 pickers” since then. "Music from Big Pink" – the entire album in its original 43 minute sequence.
An interesting series of interviews with the members of the Band demonstrating The Making of “Up On Cripple Creek”
As most know, the Band had a long association with Bob Dylan off and on for many years and albums. They backed him in the 1966 and 1974 tours, and were musicians on "the Basement Tapes," "Self Portrait," "Planet Waves," and "Before the Flood."
Here’s Bob backed by the Band in an audio-only live performance at Carnegie Hall in 1968 doing Woody Guthries’s "I Ain’t Got No Home"
Here’s live performance footage of the Band and Bob Dylan in 1969 at the Isle of Wight Festival doing a great set of "The Weight," "I Threw It All Away," "Highway 61 Revisited," "One Too Many Mornings," "I Pity The Poor Immigrant," and "Minstrel Boy" (partial)
Here’s a great (audio only) live performance from 1974 of Zimmie and the Band doing Dylan’s classic "Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright"
The Band opened for Grateful Dead on New Years Eve 1983. Here’s 75 minutes of joy!
Here's a show recorded at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles on December 3, 1989, during the first tour of the All-Starr Band. This show featured Ringo backed by Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Billy Preston, Dr. John, Joe Walsh, Nils Lofgren and Clarence Clemons. This is a major ensemble! For your enjoyment, "The Weight"
From 1994, a short segment on the 1990s-era Band from the music TV series "The Road". Concert material shot at the Peoria, IL 8-5-94 show & an unknown show that same period in Rockford, IL.
From January 1995, Levon, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson on Letterman with Paul and the house band joining in on a great version of "The Weight"
From 1996, a live performance of Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris, and Levon Helm doing "Evangeline"
Now for some newer stuff!
Here's an excerpt from the 2009 PBS Special "Levon Helm Ramble At The Ryman."
From November 2010 inn Clearwater, FL, the Levon Helm Band doing a great live performance of "The Shape I’m In"
Here's a great 21 minute short film inspired by and featuring music from Levon Helm's Grammy Award winning 2007 album "Dirt Farmer."
Back to the studio!
From the 1978 album "Levon Helm"
As the you tube site explains about the pieces I’m about to give you, “Electric Dirt" is the second album in the last two years from American musical treasure Levon Helm. Its predecessor, "Dirt Farmer," his first solo LP in a quarter century, followed Levon's near-miraculous recovery from throat cancer, and as such represented a new lease on life for the legendary artist...
The accolades poured in after the release of "Dirt Farmer" in the fall of 2007. 'This album is nothing less than a return to form by one of the most soulful vocalists in rock history,' raved the San Francisco Chronicle, reflecting the universal sentiment. Levon was named Artist of the Year by the Americana Music Association, and the album was awarded the 2008 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Recording. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone hailed Helm's "Midnight Ramble," which takes place monthly at Levon Helm Studios—a.k.a. The Barn—in his longtime home of Woodstock, N.Y., as 2008's Best Jam Session.”
From “Dirt Farmer”
For your enjoyment, some live footage and interviews of
We’ll close this tribute with a few tracks off of his 2009 album, “Electric Dirt.” I figured it would be a great send off, since it’s some of his most joyous music, having survived a bout with throat cancer and he sings it straight!
We close this birthday celebration of Levon Helm with a song he wrote that seems a fitting epitaph to his life. For your consideration of the Spirit of a man made real through music, some pretty amazing lyrics set to joyous music:
Happy Birthday and RIP Levon. You led an amazing life and gave us some amazing music. Thanks for everything. "Don't want no sorrow, For this old orphan boy, I don't want no crying, Only tears of joy..."
© Copyright 2012 Robert Wilkinson
ps - A big Happy Birthday also goes out to jazz legend Miles Davis. Due to time constraints, I can't really do justice to this all-time great musician who has blown a lot of minds for many decades. I'll try to compose something longer next year.