He Shall Be Levon: Then and Now


rco_allstars.jpgLevon Helm and the RCO All Stars
Live at the Palladium NYC New Year's Eve 1977 (Levon Helm Studios)
Levon Helm Dirt Farmer (Vanguard)

Arguably one of the finest popular music groups in recent decades, The Band officially disbanded in 1976, its members having been on the road for almost twenty years commencing in the late '50s as Ronnie Hawkins’s band, on to notoriety as Bob Dylan’s backup and collaborators, then stardom on their own as The Band. Blessed with five members all possessing leadership skills, it would be impossible for the individuals, in a post-Band mode, to top the bringing of such classic gems as “The Weight,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and numerous others. Yet the scattered solo projects were, and continue to be, rich with creativity. From the eclectic offerings of keyboardist Garth Hudson and his wife Maude, to the late Rick Danko’s releases (including the excellent Danko, Fjeld, and Anderson project) to Robbie Robertson’s ambient yet rootsy works, most members have continued to make notable music. Rural Arkansas-born drummer Levon Helm got off to an ambitious solo start in 1977, assembling one of the greatest super bands to low-profile into rather quick obscurity. The RCO All Stars were almost too good to be true: they included the core of Booker T and the MGs, Dr. John, and a still-vibrant and powerful Paul Butterfield on harp. Their debut studio recording was a polite rootsy boogie sort of affair, but this live release captures them in all their supple funky horn-driven energy. The band ushers in 1978 before a New York City audience, covering most of the selections from the studio release, opening with a rousing version of “Ain’t that a Lotta Love.” Songs alternate between ballads and up-tempo cruisers like “Going Back to Memphis” with Levon slapping the drums and providing vocals. Butterfield shines on every solo he takes, especially on his tour-de-force “Born in Chicago” showcase number. What else could a band be but impressively tight with Duck Dunn and Steve Cropper involved? They boogie, they swagger, they swing, they play the blues fast, slow, and in between. Good straightforward stuff from guys who knew exactly what to do.

dirt_farmer.jpgFast-forward 30 years to the bleak oddness of the Now. Levon survives. Survives the fire that devastated his Woodstock studio and home in the early ’90s, survives his battle with throat cancer during the mid- to late ’90s, survives losing his voice to radiation treatments and learning to sing all over again. Dirt Farmer is testament to Helm’s tenacity, luck, good fortune, love of music and family. It is his first new studio recording in 25 years. He goes back to his Arkansas Delta cotton farming childhood. The songs were learned from his musical parents, who instilled a sense of making music in the Helm children. Songs steeped in rural southern bucolic tradition with fiddle, guitar, mandolin and dulcimer augmented with bass and Levon’s trademark drumming. His voice shows just the slightest variance from what it once was, perhaps more plaintive. “The Mountain” a Steve Earle composition, harkens back to the earnest Band vocal style Helm forged. Traditional songs arranged by Helm are balanced by contributions from band members and the J.B. Lenoir blues “Feelin’ Good” (a compliment to Ry Cooder’s nicely done version on his Paradise and Lunch). Daughter Amy Helm provides a boost to the rootsy ambience with her fine vocals. This set is deep homage to music from the true vine from a man born into it and coming home to it. Both of these Levon Helm recordings would make great gifts for the aging boomer Dylan/Band roots music fan in your life. - Tali Madden

Levon Helm

tmadden.jpgMr. Madden escaped New York a few decades ago, and still misses his egg creams. Aside from a brief flirtation with the Desert Southwest, he's been damply ensconced for half his life in Portland, Oregon. The freelance writer has written extensively on blues and jazz for outlets including the late Blues Access magazine, contributed to the MusicHound Blues and Jazz album guides, and produced and programmed jazz broadcasts for public radio.