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:
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.
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.”
In the three-part vocal mix that was The Band’s signature, Rick Danko was the quavering, charmingly uncertain voice between Richard Manuel’s soulful, more technically accomplished singing and Levon Helm’s robust backwoods bellow. Though he was well known as a party animal, Danko’s style made him perfect for the lead spot on the title song to Stage Fright. The clip up top shows a much older Danko singing “When You Awake,” one of The Band’s early classics, and that sense of uncertainty is still there.
For me, Danko was literally the voice of The Band: the first actual Band track I heard was “Katie’s Been Gone,” on the original vinyl release of The Basement Tapes. Though I later learned the track had no business being on the album, it sent me running to get Music From Big Pink and The Band during that Dylan-drenched year of 1975, which opened with Blood on the Tracks and closed (give or take a week or two) with Desire.
Though Michael Gray’s encyclopedia item on Danko certifies that he was almost as eager as Robbie Robertson to break up The Band, Danko seems downright wounded during the interviews in The Last Waltz, which is one of the reasons I’ve always pulled back from admiring that film.
Judging from this tribute site and remarks accumulated over the years, Rick Danko made a huge impact on others, fans and fellow musicians alike. Last week I made a brief mention of the 10th anniversary of his passing, but over the weekend I realized that Danko was part of many of the things I liked most about The Band. Fans who think of The Band as Robbie Robertson’s backup group forget that one of the greatest songs in its catalogue, “This Wheel’s On Fire,” was co-written by Danko, and that something crucial went out of the group’s sound when the one-for-all-all-for-one spirit went away after those first two albums.
Whether it was his distinctive, percussive bass style or the sense of humor that came through in his manner and his singing, Danko was a large part of the group’s collective soul, and he deserved a lot more than what he got after The Last Waltz sounded its final notes.
Wolfgang’s Vault has dumped a load of catnip at the feet of Bobcats by posting tracks from Bob Dylan’s 1974 stadium tour with The Band. That’s the same “comeback” tour recorded and released as Before the Flood, which over the decades has gone from being one of my most-played Dylan albums to a third-tier dust collector. And yet it remains a sentimental favorite, because one of the songs opened the way to my first Dylan album purchase, Blood on the Tracks, which in turn started me on what turned out to be a lifelong passion for the man’s music.
The song in question is “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” a kiss-off song from Blonde on Blonde that gets its definitive treatment on Before the Flood. Dylan’s bellowed delivery meshes perfectly with Levon Helm’s martial drumming and Robbie Robertson’s guitar, which snarls and twangs at the same time. As a young music freak going coming out of a pretty intense Sorrows of Young Werther period in the closing months of 1974, I was ready to hear that song, which played one fall afternoon on WPLJ, and for good measure the deejay (either Pat St. John or Tony Pigg, I don’t recall which) quoted part of the chorus:
I’m gonna let you pass
And I’ll go last
Then time will tell just who fell
And who’s been left behind
What a tonic those lines provided! What a morale booster! All of a sudden I realized that I needed to come to grips with this guy Dylan whose name was invoked so religiously in the pages of Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy. I was still trying to decide what album to start with when the January 1975 release of Blood on the Tracks and the ensuing uproar among critics made the choice pretty obvious. It proved to be a happy choice, needless to say.
I picked up Before the Flood not long after getting Blood on the Tracks, and I came to appreciate that Bob Dylan is the master of the kiss-off song. Along with “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine)” the album features “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” with its lethal closer:
I ain’t sayin’ you treated me unkind
You could have done better but I don’t mind
You just kinda wasted my precious time
But don’t think twice, it’s all right
Add in “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and you’ve got a primer in how to write articulate, smart breakup songs. Instead of sobbing about broken hearts and tormented souls, Dylan backhands the past and moves on. Considering the nostalgia and comeback trappings of the 1974 tour — Dylan’s critical and commercial fortunes had taken a nosedive after the disastrous Self Portrait in 1970 — it’s interesting to see so many songs that all but spit on the idea of nostalgia or regret. The old songs get pretty aggressive makeovers, often to their detriment: the seduction song “Lay Lady Lay” becomes what Clinton Heylin aptly termed “a whorehouse holler,” and the version of “Rainy Day Women 12 & 35” is yet another reminder that some Dylan tunes need to be left alone for good. By contrast, The Band is content to shuffle through its deck of oldies yet again: the playing is as tight and professional as ever, but there’s no mistaking the lack of inspiration that set in after Stage Fright, and these days it’s deeply sad to hear Richard Manuel’s ravaged voice on “I Shall Be Released,” knowing what lay ahead for him.
An audience interested mainly in the past, a singer determined to grow beyond it, and a backup band unable to escape it. Before the Flood is one curious album, all right.