Tuesday, April 24, 2012

levon knows I'm miserable now

Here's a brief and slightly belated tribute to Levon Helm, who died last Thursday. I've mentioned my great love for The Band here before, and their first album Music From Big Pink in particular, and Helm (the only non-Canadian in the line-up - he was from Arkansas) was a vital and integral part of their sound as vocalist and drummer and (as pretty much every member of the band was) multi-instrumentalist. One of the great things about The Band is that they had three "lead" vocalists (if you disregard the couple of songs Robbie Robertson sang on) in Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, all three of whom are now dead, as it happens. I think Helm was my favourite singer of the three, though, featuring on classic songs like Rag Mama Rag, Up On Cripple Creek and The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.

Both of those linked clips are from Martin Scorsese's classic 1978 documentary - if you will, rockumentary - The Last Waltz, which you should snap up ludicrously cheaply on DVD right now. Album-wise you will certainly want the first two albums Music From Big Pink and The Band, and I retain a bit of a soft spot for their underrated third album Stage Fright as well. The 1972 live album Rock Of Ages and the ramshackle collection of Bob Dylan collaborations The Basement Tapes are well worth a listen too.

Here's a couple of other Band clips: a bracingly brisk run-through of The Weight (with Helm singing the first couple of verses) from the 1970 Festival Express tour, and a studio run-through of King Harvest (Has Surely Come), also from 1970.

Drummer/vocalist is a job few people have managed to do successfully, as Levon Helm did. There are a few obvious examples like Phil Collins and Don Henley, and there are drummers who sang the occasional lead vocal like Roger Taylor, Ringo Starr and Micky Dolenz. Karen Carpenter started out as a drummer, too, but eventually moved to the front of the stage (as did Collins and Henley). The only other example that springs to mind is Andy Sturmer of the mighty Jellyfish, who used to play a mini-kit while standing up at the front of the stage.

Levon Helm also gave his name to one of Elton John's more interesting songs, and also Elton and partner David Furnish's son.

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