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Scott Metzger, Marco Benevento, Dave Dreiwitz and Joe Russo share their experiences with Levon, their approach to Levon’s music and their favorite Levon experiences.
Hidden Track: Did you ever get to meet or play with Levon?
Scott Metzger: I never got to play with Levon, but I did meet him once. When I first moved to New York City, I worked as a stagehand at B.B. Kings. One of Levon’s first gigs back was there with Hubert Sumlin. Now THAT was a show! In the two years I worked at the club, Levon was the only guy to ever give me a tip. He slipped me a $20 at the end of the night and said, “get yourself a cup of coffee, son.” What a gentleman.
Recently I’ve been lucky enough to meet and do some playing with quite a few of the guys from Levon’s band. You couldn’t ask to meet a nicer group of guys—and they all play their asses off, obviously.
Marco Benevento: Thanks to Joe Russo, I went to a Ramble last year. Joe was playing with Phil Lesh and Friends at the barn, opening for Levon’s band. I had just moved to the Woodstock area and had always wanted to go see a Ramble ever since I’d heard about them from Steven Bernstein back in the Ropeadope days. I knew some folks there but I also met a bunch of great people like Amy Helm and her husband Jay (Collins), as well as Larry Campbell and some real nice folks that worked at the barn. The whole experience was totally inspirational and the venue floored me! The sound was so good in there! It really is a dream venue come true.
Joe nailed it on the head about Levon’s playing, when said that Levon had this “unattainable feel” which I couldn’t agree more with. No one can really replicate that feel or subtle southern bounce that Levon had. It’s something that you muster after years and years of playing, traveling, and learning about yourself and your relation to your instrument.
I wound up sitting in that night and playing The Weight and Rock And Roll Shoes with the band. It was Brian Mitchell, Danny Louis and me all behind the keys and a fantastic welcome into the new community up here!
Honestly, words can’t describe the elation and incredible vibe that surrounded the whole atmosphere for me that night. It was totally unforgettable.
Dave Dreiwitz: I never got to play with Levon. I did get to a Ramble, though, and it was one of greatest musical things I ever witnessed. His groove was so heavy and there was a certain magic to it. I can’t put what that magic was into words, but everything that he did, he did with a lot of love.
Joe Russo: I was lucky enough to meet Levon and play with him on a few occasions. I’ve also played with some of the people from his band quite a bit especially Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams.
I did a ramble with Phil Lesh last year, the second one with Phil and his kids and Larry and Teresa and Jackie Greene. After the set, I went back in the barn’s kitchen and Levon was just sitting there and I was totally freaked out.
The only other time I had seen him was a year or two before when I went up to a Ramble for my birthday. I remember it as being one of the best experiences, just being near this man and his energy. The room was filled just being around him. That swept me away. So getting to meet him in his house while playing at his place was just–I was definitely freaked out but so excited. He couldn’t be a nicer person and I got to perform with them that night, which was a life changer. One of the highlights of my life for sure.
[Photo by Mitch Manzella]
Hidden Track: What is the most challenging thing about playing Levon’s music and preparing for this show?
Scott Metzger: First of all, it’s a real honor to be on this gig. One the toughest parts of preparing for the show has been deciding what not to play. So many good songs are associated with this man that its kind of out of control.
Personally, the challenge has been to nail down all of the subtle guitar parts. It’s tricky because they are subtle and don’t slap you across the face. At the same time, they are crucial to the songs.
Marco Benevento: All of the different and extremely unique tones that Garth gets— the Clav, the Lowery and his accordion sounds. Also his rhythmic thing is really cool too. Garth is good at nailing a real supportive and strong keyboard part over/under the band. Those are cool to follow and replicate. It’s nice to try and sit in Garth’s head for a second and get “Garthed.” Chest Fever!
Dave Dreiwitz: The most challenging thing about this music is getting it right. The love of this music is the easy part of working on it. The Band and Levon’s music is all about feel and getting that right is the hardest part.
Joe Russo: Just doing it justice. Being that there are so many performers coming and going, for this show, the most challenging thing is that we can’t get together for weeks on end to rehearse this as a band. The four of us have gotten together a few times so far, but we won’t be able to do a full band rehearsal with all of the guests till the day of the show. And it’s a lot of material: 26 songs!
It’s always fun to listen to music you love already, but there’s the difference of listening casually for pure enjoyment and getting the music completely embedded in your body. It’s been a bit of a study. These are songs that you’ve heard a million times, but never had to learn, so it’s a little bit of a different thing. But it’s super exciting and we’re all excited to be a part of that night. We’ve put the work in and will make it as good as it can be.
As for Levon’s playing, he’s just so hyper musical. His groove is so funky for a rock drummer and where he places the beat is just his own thing–nobody could really replicate that. His left hand was this crazy force.
It’s crazy, but every person who I’ve ever spoken about Levon—even years ago—upon seeing him in person, everyone has the same reaction, just otherworldly energy, you are witnessing something special just seeing this man standing. And again, it’s not just the music. Everybody just had such an amazing feeling being around this man and you don’t hear that about anybody.
Hidden Track: What is your favorite Levon-related song or performance?
Scott Metzger: It seems like an obvious one, but The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down from the Last Waltz. Man, that performance is SO good. It’s magic, really. The band is ridiculously tight and Levon’s vocal is just so honest and determined. I get chills thinking about it.
Marco Benevento: Hearing and watching the video for King Harvest on The Band, A Musical History DVD was definitely a memorable moment for me! I love listening to that tune and of course watching them in Robbie’s barn in Woodstock is super badass too.
I feel like in King Harvest you can really feel the Band digging deep into that unattainable feel that no one’s got except for Levon. The Band really had this group feeling like no other band. They sounded like they all really spent time crafting a nifty, catchy folk tune together and listening to that camaraderie is what really makes my musical brain feel satisfied.
Dave Dreiwitz: The first time I saw Levon and Rick Danko was when they were playing in Ringo Starr’s first All Starr Band [in 1989]. I was floored by the groove and from that day on, I became a huge Band fan. I wish I had seen them more, but at the same time, I feel so lucky to have been to a Ramble. What was going on up there is what I think music is all about.
Joe Russo: I gotta say, playing The Weight with Levon at the barn. I mean, being able to watch him is one thing, but for him to invite me up, you know [imitating Levon’s southern drawl], “we’re gonna have a friend come up and help us out on this one.” And I get up and I’m playing the fucking Weight with Levon Helm at his studio. My arm hairs are standing up just talking about it now.
It was truly one of the most amazing experiences in my life. Just having someone like that invite me up to play with him on such an iconic song. It was a pretty serious whirl of emotions. And also that night, Marco came up and played on The Weight too. And it was like I had just played with Phil at the barn and now I’m playing drums with Levon and I look across and see Marco who I hadn’t played with in a really long time, so lots of emotions with that—and my dad was there too! Everything you could think of to make it amazing was there. I’m just so lucky to have that memory.
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