Tag Archives: Levon Helm

The Weight

Bruce Springsteen found a classy way to pay tribute to the late Levon Helm at last night’s Newark show:

Sounds like at least half the people in the stadium were singing along. It reminded me that the first time I really listened to this song was when I bought Before the Flood, right at the start of what would turn out to be a lifelong Bob Dylan obsession. The album hasn’t aged well, but I will always have a soft spot in my heart for it because I realized I’d already heard “The Weight” and “Up On Cripple Creek” at some point and gotten the choruses wound into the cellular structure of my brain.

It also got me thinking of what other artists have done with the song. Aretha Franklin, for instance:

Nice little slide guitar intro from Duane Allman. Gives Aretha the perfect launch platform for her vocals.

And then there’s this version from Gillian Welch:

This is a performance from last summer, with Levon joining Wilco on the stage. At about 3:39 Levon’s voice falters and his daughter smoothly steps in to complete the verse. The grin on her father’s face speaks volumes:

Finally, a performance from The Band itself, in its prime:

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Levon Helm

Most of the tributes to Levon Helm (who just died at 71 after a long fight against throat cancer) rightly focus on his remarkable career as a musician. I thought I would highlight his short but memorable list of movie credits: narrator and sidekick to Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff, and in particular his superb work as Loretta Lynn’s father in Coal Miner’s Daughter. His Arkansas-bred drawl and charisma never failed to light up the screen whenever he took a role. Any man who could hold his own with Sissy Spacek and Sam Shepard was no joke.

Helm’s memoir This Wheel’s On Fire is hands-down the most entertaining rock bio I’ve read, and I only wish he’d recorded an audiobook version in that inimitable storyteller’s voice. As someone who could never quite swallow Robbie Robertson’s self-important pronouncements in The Last Waltz, I trust Helm’s take on the breakup of The Band far more than anyone else’s. Nobody disputes Robertson’s place as chief songwriter for The Band, but there’s also no question that the heavily workshopped songs on those first two Band albums (in which Robertson shared songwriting credits) are the ones that sustain the group’s mystique, while the Robertson-only songs on subsequent albums are a far cry from their predecessors. And if Robbie was the sole genius at work in The Band, why has he failed to record a note of music that matters in his post-Band career? I think Helm’s lasting bitterness was justified.

All that’s done now. Helm had a fine late phase in his career, garlanded with Grammy awards and sparked by plenty of fine music. I only wish I’d been able to catch one of his Midnight Rambles. 

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Blue Monday (Helm on Buchanan)

Roy Buchanan was the bluesman’s bluesman, and he could do some pretty amazing things with a Telecaster. In the early Sixties, he briefly joined The Hawks, backing up rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins, and shared the stage with the musicians who would go on to become The Band. He even tutored Robbie Robertson just before Robertson stepped up to become the group’s lead guitarist. In his memoir This Wheel’s On Fire, Levon Helm talks about Buchanan, whom he describes as “a brilliant and moody player who definitely had his own mystique.”

He had a beatnik look, complete with goatee, which both Ronnie and I adopted for a while. Roy had strange eyes, didn’t talk to anyone, and looked real fierce. Ronnie always reminded us to smile, move, and dance when we played. We had to look like we were having a better time than anyone. It was show business, those little leg kicks that fellas in bands had to do back then.

Not Roy. He didn’t believe in putting on a show. He just stood there and played the shit out of that guitar. Roy played a Louisiana Hayride style like Fred [Carter Jr.] and James Burton, who was playing with Ricky Nelson then. We loved how good Roy was, but he was too weird for the Hawk. One night Roy tried to convince us that he was a werewolf and destined to marry a nun. Not long after that, Robbie took over the lead guitar.

The clip above shows Buchanan playing “Sweet Dreams,” the instrumental version of a Don Gibson tune that became Buchanan’s signature piece.

Here’s another display of Buchanan’s fiery technique:

In this clip, Buchanan plays dueling Telecasters with Albert Collins on “Further On Down the Road.”

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The Thanksgiving Show (with Bob Dylan, The Band, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig)

Since it’s Thanksgiving, let us give thanks for the indispensible Wolfgang’s Vault, which has posted the most complete available recording of The Last Waltz, the all-star farewell concert by The Band on Thanksgiving 1976. Whatever qualms you might have about the film — I refer you to Levon Helm’s autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire for a savagely hilarious demolition of former bandmate Robbie Robertson’s self-mythologizing ways — there are moments of supreme beauty and artistry, as when Dylan takes the stage near the end of the proceedings.

Aside from the fact that this is a superb performance of one of Dylan’s greatest songs, what I particularly like about this clip is the way you can see drummer Levon Helm and guitarist Robbie Robertson watching Dylan as the song ends — wondering what he’s going to spring on them next. Helm’s evident enjoyment of Dylan’s unpredictability is there to be seen in the film, in between the closeups of Robertson and his designer scarves.

And, of course, no Thanksgiving is complete without a viewing of this Warner Brothers classic:

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