The majority of the time I hear a new song or a new band, I am not initially attracted to the music by vocals. I became a rabid Phish fan in my early teenage years, which has veered me in the direction of appreciating great musicianship over vocal prowess, but the first time I heard The Band I was struck by the soul and power of the singing. Until I fell in love with the Southern-accented voice of drummer Levon Helm I deeply believed that free flowing instrumental improvisation, primarily Phish, was the only true way to emit emotion through music.
As the only American, let alone Southerner, in the renown quintet that fused folk, blues, country and rock to make a unique Southern/Appalachian rock sound, Levon Helm was undeniably the backbone and spirit of the band. Although Robbie Robertson wrote a great number of The Band’s tunes and often took on the role of “bandleader,” when watching “The Last Waltz” it is clear that Levon was the heart of this iconic group. Not only was The Band loved by its fans, The Band was also highly regarded by critics and other musicians (Neil Young said during The Last Waltz concert “it’s one of the pleasures of my life to be able to be on the stage with these people tonight”). Clearly I never knew Levon Helm; I’m just some guy, but Levon’s interviews, passionate vocals, and love for music in conjunction with snippets of him in “The Last Waltz” conveyed to me that Levon was not your typical rock star. In fact, Levon left The Hawks when they were Dylan’s backing band during Dylan’s infamous electric tour because he was disheartened by the negative reactions from fans. Thankfully The Hawks recruited Levon back into the band after he worked on oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico because without Levon, the band would not have been The Band.
Over the past few days musicians ranging from Slash to Jim James to Mike Gordon have been publicly mourning and honoring Levon. This must be a strong indication of his character. I can’t help but think that Levon was a class-act and an inspiration for musicians from all over the musical spectrum. Levon was a true fan favorite and at times the epitome of an underdog. Legendary stories circulate about how Levon was unhappy with and opposed the dismantling of The Band likely makes every music fan smile (an artist who opposed the pressure of big business). He defiantly fought off throat cancer to come back and reignite his career in his late 60s and his vocals brought a sincere and honest feel to The Band’s lyrics. I always felt that Levon’s voice and backbeat brought the band’s songs to life and that his voice accurately depicted the characters in The Band’s songs.
Levon’s vocals were not clean nor were they pristine, but they were authentic, original and frank. He was not the first musician to blend musical genres, but Levon’s ability to sing gospel, soul, country, rock, and blues with a natural southern twang just felt right. I always felt like Levon’s voice was straight out of a southern bar where a local singer entertained patrons but only after his voice took form by polishing off a few glasses of whiskey, maybe moonshine in this case, and a couple of cigarettes. But, this singing voice belonged to the fundamental element of The Band.
The image of Mr. Levon Helm slouching over his drum set fervidly belting into the hanging mic is engrained in my mind. Levon was an extraordinary musician who could simultaneously carry the beat of a song on his kit and sing the melody of a tune – a difficult skill to master. Like so many of his fans, I am deeply appreciative of Levon’s musical contributions, but without being introduced to Levon Helm’s vocals I don’t know if I would have ever branched out or grown to appreciate the true emotion of an artist’s voice. Although I still have a soft spot for inspiring instrumental interplay, by way of Levon Helm I have discovered and learned to appreciate a wide variety of music; but for me, Levon’s voice will always be the starting and end point for my appreciation of soulful and emotive vocals.