Initially, the performances were the ways and means to pay his medical bills as he recovered from a serious bout with throat cancer, which took away his golden voice for several years, replacing it with a gravely tone that remained until his passing in April 2012.
But, the shows became so popular and mythical, that Helm & Co. continued doing the weekly performances, all of which became part of a renaissance for Helm’s music and lore, as seen through the albums released near the end of his life (and Grammys won).
For myself and millions of other music freaks, the music of The Band remains a cornerstone of our existence. No other band from either side of the Atlantic Ocean has had the organic growth and enduring impact that Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson radiated into the cosmos.
When you dive into the sounds of The Band, you’re immersing yourself in the blood, sweat and tears of the United States and Canada (the musicians hailed from both sides of the border). It’s a seamless, groundbreaking blend of rock, folk, blues and country music, created at a time when most rock music was about shock and awe, and not necessarily about revealing deeper truths within all of us.
Each song of The Band is a masterpiece, each album a melodic chapter in a long and arduous history of each country, where you not only feel the timeless nature of the tunes in your bones, you also realize that nothing is the same, everything is the same in the grand scheme of things.
Hell, even George Harrison and Eric Clapton (among countless other rock giants) were in awe of what they heard from this rag-tag bunch living and recording in the basement of a pink house in rural Woodstock, New York, in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Later in life, Clapton even admitted that he wanted to ask The Band if he could join them from the ashes of Cream disbanding.
And there I was, in the spring of 2011, finally able to witness Helm live and in all his glory behind the drum kit. The evening and experience was eventually published by the Press-Republican, my local newspaper in Plattsburgh, New York, which paid pretty much peanuts for my music articles:
“The car tires squished through the mud of Helm’s backyard. Dozens of vehicles crammed onto the land. Anonymous faces cracked open cold microbrews. Cigarette smoke, exhaled in haste, drifted into the crisp, starry night. Burn barrels dotted the road to the home/studio. Laughter echoed into the distance. It is an awkward feeling trekking around the ambiance of a revered man only seen from afar, in films like ‘The Last Waltz’ or black and white photos. Helm has created a magical castle for himself and lovingly invites any to partake in his happiness. Walking into the basement entrance, I hear foot-stomps coming through the ceiling. The structure shakes. Muffled voices shout and cheer. It only means one thing — Levon has taken the stage.”
I walked out of the Ramble with a new sense of self, this deep and sincere connection to the mysteries of the universe, of humanity’s role and place in the organized chaos of daily life — the performance was that staggering, in purpose and in scope.
And I’ll never forget that signature smile adorning Helm’s face that night: “Howling into the heavens, Helm has a grin ear-to-ear when ‘Ophelia’ kicks in. The entire barn gyrates and sings together like a church revival on the Louisiana bayou. Guitarist Larry Campbell throws bare-knuckle licks. Pounding the keys with a thunderous fury, pianist Brian Mitchell looks Helm directly in the eye as the two belted out the lyrics. The night was over, but the memories had been set in motion.”
The Ramble and all that incredible music came flooding back to me last Sunday when I went to the Fine Arts Theater in Asheville to watch the new documentary, “Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.”
To see old interviews with Levon recorded in his Woodstock home, to hear all those mesmerizing songs and watch the story of the group unfold, well, it put tears in my eyes and chills throughout my body.
For a rambler like myself, the open road has always felt more like home than wherever it was may be that I’ve hung my hat or left my belongings. Hop into the old pickup truck, put it into drive and crank The Band on the stereo — for it is in that moment alone that all is well, all is aligned in the starry night of your intent.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.
1 There will be a special concert in memory of late banjo great Steve Sutton from 3 to 8 p.m. Sunday, March 8, in the Queen Auditorium at the Folkmoot Friendship Center in Waynesville.
2 There will be a special “Oyster Roast” gathering from 4 to 10 p.m. Saturday, March 7, at Nantahala Brewing’s Taproom & Burger Bar in Bryson City.
3 There will be another installment of “Comedy Night” at 9 p.m. Friday, March 6, at Mad Anthony’s Taproom & Restaurant in Waynesville.
4 Popular alternative rock act Sister Hazel will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 6, at the Smoky Mountain Center for the Performing Arts in Franklin.
5 Rock/reggae act Positive Mental Attitude (PMA) will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 7, at Nantahala Brewing’s Outpost taproom and restaurant in Sylva.