Two Legends, One Night

July 15th, 2011

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. And one of the participants of that epic show was another legend herself, Emmylou Harris, who sat in on a breathtaking version of “Evangeline.” The ageless Ms. Harris, a supremely talented singer-songwriter, has been performing live for more than 40 years. So it’s a real treat to see her playing SummerStage on Monday, 7/20, alongside the Levon Helm Band (above, doing “The Weight” on PBS). And as an added bonus, get there early to see the gifted Hayes Carll open the show.