It’s hard to think back, but there was a time when The Band, and the members of The Band, didn’t get the respect they deserved for being one of the five most important acts in the history of rock. In 1986, the reformed group, without Robbie Robertson, was touring small bars in Florida. At least The Band was selling out those bars as a decade later Rick Danko was having a hard time filling such places closer to his Woodstock home. Over the last decade Levon Helm reignited The Band’s flame and kept it burning through his Midnight Ramble and Ramble On The Road performances. Helm was The Band’s ambassador after Robbie Robertson wanted no part of playing his songs from that era and the deaths of Richard Manuel and Rick Danko.
For those of us who weren’t old enough to have caught The Band during their heyday, the last ten years of Levon’s life were a gift that we cherished and didn’t take for granted. Not only did we get a chance to see Levon sing songs such as Ophelia, The Weight and Rag Mama Rag with the likes of Dawes, Ray LaMontagne, Bob Weir, My Morning Jacket, the Allman Brothers Band and The Felice Brothers, but we were also treated to a pair of fantastic studio albums in Electric Dirt and Dirt Farmer. Anyone who wanted the opportunity to show love for Levon, and by proxy The Band, were able to do so, which is a miracle considering how grim the situation appeared for Helm when he was first diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998.
Among the many tributes to Helm that have taken place since the news of his passing came in on Thursday were many viewings of The Last Waltz, a movie he hated, and many performances of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, a song he refused to play after The Last Waltz. For however Helm viewed a movie and song that became synonymous with him despite his objections, you can’t deny that Levon stole the show in The Last Waltz, particularly with the anger that comes through in his vocals in a version of The Night That Drove Old Dixie Down for which it’s fitting that it was the last version, as it can never be topped.
After losing his wealth, his health, two of his blood brothers and nearly his beloved home in Woodstock, the Arkansas native staged a comeback for the ages. If anyone deserved success in the final decade of his life, it was Levon Helm.
PAGE FOUR = The Future