Tellus 360 and The Ware to Host Levon Helm Film & Jam Tribute, 10/7
In the process, the Hawks (who began being known around town simply as "the band") reinvented their own sound, crossing rock with country, folk, R&B, gospel, and a variety of older influences; vaudeville, string-band, parlor music. It was a sound writer Greil Marcus later wrote came from tapping into the essence of "the old, weird America...the invisible republic."
On their debut album Music from Big Pink (1968; Capitol), the group virtually invented the sound known today as Americana. In doing so they showed a generation of Americans hungry for radical change that there were indeed lessons from the past to be carried forward.The Band (1969; Capitol) and later works would only solidify the group's impact.
The lone American in a band of Canadians, Helm's southern perspective brought authenticity and authority to songs like "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)," "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," "W.S. Walcott's Medicine Show," "Rag Mama Rag," and "Up on Cripple Creek." His sharp, economical, yet emotive drumming style led writer Jon Carroll to call Levon "the only drummer who can make you cry."
Though the Band split in 1976 (their final concert immortalized in Martin Scorsese's "The Last Waltz"), Levon and the others (minus Robertson) reunited in the 1980s to tour. They released three critically acclaimed studio albums in the 1990s. Along the way, Helm turned to acting, putting in acclaimed performances in "Coal Miner's Daughter" (1980) and "The Right Stuff" (1983) among nearly two dozen other films. He last appeared on film in "Shooter," (2007).
A lifelong smoker, Levon was diagnosed with cancer of the vocal chords in 1998. Rather than undergo a laryngectomy, he chose radiation treatment, which silenced his voice for several years. When he became well enough to perform and sing again in the mid-2000s, he launched the Midnight Ramble, a regular series of rollicking, intimate shows at his barn studio in Woodstock.
Originally conceived to help cover his medical bills and mortgage, the events continued bi-weekly for several years, and combined with the success of his new recordings allowed Helm to finish his career at peak creative and critical form.
Only the re-emergence of Helm's cancer brought an end to the ride. He died in April 2012. It brought to an end a period Bill Flannagan speaking on CBS Sunday Morning called "Levon Helm's miraculous encore," adding that "it was as if heaven decided to give Levon an extra decade just so we could all hear his songs one more time."
More On: Lancaster, Festival, John Duff, Elvis Presley, Sonny Boy Williamson, Medicine Show, Bob Dylan, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel.