Levon Helm, The Band and The Last Waltz

With the passing of legendary drummer Levon Helm, I began to reflect on one of my first true obsessions in music, The Band. Helm succumbed to throat cancer two weeks ago leaving Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson the only two remaining members of The Band left. Helm was known for his country-accented voice and creative drumming style and he remains one of my top 5 favorite drummers along with Ginger Baker, John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell and of course, the timeless Keith Moon. My earliest memory of The Band was on a family trip to Canada coincidentally, given that four-fifths of The Band was Canadian. Also ironic was that a band made up almost entirely of Canadians can so perfectly embody the idea of “Americana,” although admittedly that has so much to do with the sole American Helm, his presence and his Soulful-Southern voice.

From left to right, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Rick Danko, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Robbie Robertson

I heard the song “The Weight” on a CD and every time it finished I just kept asking my dad to play it again and again until everyone else in the car wanted to kill me. The simple but soulful track almost overwhelmed me and from there I was hooked. When I got home, I bought their Greatest Hits and I just kept uncovering more gems. The Band remain one of the most underrated performance artists of all-time and despite a number of accolades including induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, a Grammy’s Lifetime Achievement Award and being named the 50th greatest artists of all-time by Rolling Stone, it seems like they are remembered more as Dylan’s backing band on the legendary Dylan goes electric European tour. There was something incredibly admirable about the band and their simple roots and uncomplicated lifestyle living in upstate New York. They didn’t live the excessively lavish lifestyle of many of their contemporaries although it should be said, they did indeed party and party hard. According to Helm, the multi-instrumentalist Richard Manuel was consuming eight bottles of Grand Marnier per day in conjunction with an exceptional cocaine addiction.

Levon Helm during The Last Waltz

In truth, I wasn’t aware of The Last Waltz until a friend’s dad introduced me to it. For those who are unaware, The Last Waltz is a music documentary directed by Martin Scorsese that chronicles the final concert of The Band at Winterland in San Francisco on Thanksgiving Day in 1976. The movie tagline, which so perfectly captures the essence of the night, is “It started as a Concert. It Became a Celebration. Now it’s a Legend.” The concert, while fantastic musically, sticks out to me for its almost unfathomable collection of legendary talent on one stage. When The Band performed “I Shall Be Released” as its closing number, on stage was all five members of The Band, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, Eric Clapton, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, Ronnie Hawkins and Neil Diamond who always seemed out of place to me. Think about that, try to get your head around it and let that sink in for a little. While Rolling Stone is obviously not the end all-be all, if you take their 100 Greatest Artists of All-Time list just as a matter of reference, on the stage was the 60th (Joni Mitchell), the 53rd (Clapton), the 50th (The Band), the 42nd (Van Morrison), the 34th (Neil Young), the 17th (Muddy Waters), the guitarist of the 4th (Wood, The Rolling Stones), the 2nd (Dylan) and the drummer of the 1st (Starr, The Beatles). As they all join together singing “Any day now, any day now, I shall be released,” you can’t help but get chills as it perfectly captures that end of an era feeling. This night was a once in a generation kind of thing and one that I feel lucky that someone recorded so at least I can feel a bit part of it. A fitting final performance from one of the more underappreciated groups of all-time and the special guests complemented The Band perfectly, but never overshadowed them.

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