Two Nights of the Levon Helm Band This Weekend

November 24th, 2010

Levon Helm is a member of rock royalty. He grew up in Arkansas but headed to Canada after high school to join rockabilly-star Ronnie Hawkins’ backing band, the Hawks. Eventually he played alongside Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson before those five struck out on their own. By the mid-’60s, Bob Dylan was looking to go electric and he decided the Hawks were the perfect musicians to accompany him. While Dylan’s plugged-in takes on his folk classics would eventually gain widespread acclaim, it certainly didn’t happen overnight. As the audience’s booing and catcalls intensified, Helm decided to leave the band rather than face that negativity night after night.

In the meantime, Dylan and the Hawks headed to Europe and then to Woodstock after Dylan had a disastrous motorcycle accident there. While they were in upstate New York, they recorded a slew of material—eventually released as The Basement Tapes—at Danko, Hudson and Manuel’s house, affectionately known as Big Pink, in West Saugerties, N.Y. With things going so well musically, Danko invited Helm to rejoin them and write their own music, and somewhere along the way the band became the Band. They toured and released seven studio albums—including their spectacular debut, Music from Big Pink, and their fantastic sophomore effort, The Band—and one of the greatest live albums ever, Rock of Ages.

With their supreme musicianship, vivid storytelling and three of the finest voices (Danko’s, Helm’s and Manuel’s) in the history of recorded music, the Band went on to influence countless musicians and songwriters, and their songs, including “The Weight,” “Ophelia,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek,” are an enduring part of the rock canon. But, alas, all good things must come to an end. And so the Band closed up shop at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day 1976. It was, quite literally, The Last Waltz.

Following the Band’s breakup, Helm toured and recorded music and dabbled in acting, appearing in Coal Miner’s Daughter, The Right Stuff and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada among others. And after a successful but costly bout with throat cancer, he began to stage monthly Midnight Rambles at his home studio in Woodstock. Helm sings, entertains and plays the drums and mandolin, accompanied by an all-world backing band of his own, led by sideman extraordinaire Larry Campbell and Helm’s daughter, Amy. And if that weren’t enough, Helm has even put out two new albums, the Grammy-winning Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, since 2007. But here’s the best part: Levon Helm (above, playing “Ophelia” on PBS) is bringing his Ramble to the Beacon Theatre on Friday, with Steve Earle, and Saturday, with Bettye LaVette. Do your best to make it there. But be warned that your face will hurt the next day from smiling so much the night before. —R. Zizmor