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Levon Helm: 1940-2012 | reviews, news & interviews

Levon Helm: 1940-2012

Levon Helm: 1940-2012

Farewell to the heart and soul of The Band

The late Levon Helm: a true one-off

Levon Helm, who died yesterday from cancer at the age of 71, was not only the drummer in The Band, one of the load-bearing beams of American roots rock. He was also an astonishingly soulful singer, whether as lead or harmony, with a voice that seemed to imbue everything he sang with an unfussy yet absolute truth, as inescapable and essential as the earth.

Helm’s distinctive crook-backed playing style and immersed singing, reaching up from his drum stool toward the microphone like a wolf howling at the moon, were marks of a true one-off.

Born in Elaine, Arkansas, in 1940, Helm brought the sounds and sensibilities of the South to the group of young Canadian musicians who started out in the late Fifties as The Hawks, backing hirsute rocker Ronnie Hawkins. Later, in 1965, they became Bob Dylan’s live backing band, although Helm bailed early on during this period: he wasn’t a fan of being booed every night as Dylan made the switch from acoustic protest to electric poet. Instead, he went to work on the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico

The outpouring of sadness and affection which greeted news of his grave illness was as genuine as the music Helm made

He returned to The Band in 1967, in time to make the two albums which routinely crop up in those distressingly consensual Best of All Time lists: but The Band and Music From Big Pink deserve their place, minting a new, mythical strain of North American music, uniting the past and present so seamlessly it was impossible to see the join. In a band blessed with several superb vocalists Helm still stood out, as adept on the joyously bawdy "Ophelia" as he was at capturing the immense, immeasurable sense of collective sorrow that runs through "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down".

The Band continued ploughing this furrow, with only slightly diminshing returns, until 1976, the year of their star-studded finale captured on film by Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz. Helm continued as a solo artist and occasionally played with the reformed Band, minus Robertson. He also revealed himself to be a tidy actor, most notably in the 1980 Loretta Lynn biopic Coal Miner's Daughter

He didn't have his troubles to seek in later years. He was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998, while a fire destroyed his Woodstock studio. But he recovered, raising his profile with two excellent albums, Dirt Farmer in 2007 and Electric Dirt in 2009, on which his instantly recognisable farm boy’s holler sounded worn by age and illness but no less affecting. He also hosted a successful TV programme, Midnight Ramble, in which a variety of A-list musicians came to his Woodstock farm not just to play music, but to pay their respects.

Although Helm became bitterly estranged from The Band’s principal songwriter Robbie Robertson after the group split in 1976, the pair were apparently reconciled on Helm’s deathbed in recent days. Fittingly, the outpouring of sadness and affection which greeted news of his grave illness was as genuine as the music he made for over 50 years.

Watch Helm singing “Ophelia” with The Band at The Last Waltz

Singing "Tenessee Jed" on Letterman




Helm’s distinctive crook-backed playing style and immersed singing were marks of a true one-off

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