I was a little surprised that Levon Helm's death was so mourned. He deserved it of course, I just didn't count him as being in the public consciousness in any significant way over the past couple decades. Not only was he of my parents' generation but really he, the Band, even Bob Dylan (I'll be happy to debate this point) were not iconic counterculture figures like Joplin, Morrrison, Hendrix, the Beatles or Stones, nor was he (or they) pop sensations. I always sort of categorized him as having a niche following or a musician the musician's loved. I was wrong, happily.
So as I prepared to plug him into the Jukebox, I felt suddenly...mainstream. Part of some morbid postmortem euphoria.
Never mind. Instead, here are some highlights from The Last Waltz, where Levon rightly rising to centre stage at times and then happily fades back to drive the thing forward. I was surprised to learn that Levon hated the documentary, thinking it elevated Robbie Robertson at the expense of the rest of the group. Again, never mind, it remains my favourite rock concert documentary.
First, Dr. John - a session musician first (watch his fingers, you'll see why), a well recognized solo artist second. He just put out a new album produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys.
Next, Neil Diamond. Yes, that's right, Neil Diamond. The Band wouldn't have included him in their Last Waltz if he wasn't worth waltzing with.
Next, the Band does one of their own hits - Up on Cripple Creek. How many singers can sing a line and make it cool and have it clearly include the words "a donut in my tea"? One. Levon Helm.
Next up - Joni Mitchell, full of verbal creativity and melodic originality and playing in an idiosyncratic self-created tuning that the Band had to figure out how to play along to. By the way, the guests at the Last Waltz didn't just come on and play a single song - they each did three or four. The Band had to learn a dumptruck load of new material. The concert lasted seven hours. (You can't embed this track, so listen to it here)
Next - another of the Band's greatest: The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Think of how strangely counter-cultural it was for the band to have a hit about the Civil War, from a Southerner's point of view. The pictures of the Band looked like they were right out of the Civil War on their self-titled album.
And finally, I Shall Be Released. Witness the unity with a giant group of legendary musicians. Look at Van Morrison pouring out soul. Notice Ronnie Hawkins doesn't seem to have ever heard the song before.
Rest well in the dirt, Levon. Thanks for the still-great music. You're well loved, as social media attests.