A Word of Thanks to Levon Helm


"The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was playing in a bar in Madrid tonight. You won't mind if I add my own poor tribute to the outpouring of affection for the great Levon Helm, who died last week.

I've always adored The Band's music. If ever there was a whole greater than the sum of its parts, this was it. Each member was unusually talented, Helm not least, but the chemistry was something else again. That's what made the sadness and acrimony that followed after the group broke up so tragic. But we have "The Last Waltz" (much as Helm resented the way it demoted him, as he thought) to remind us how they looked and sounded at their best. It's also good to know that before he died Helm's career enjoyed a second flourishing. He spent his last years doing what he did best, surrounded by family and collaborators who revered him. Not many of us can hope for that.

The second career came about through financial stress. He was broke and fighting throat cancer. He started doing small concerts at his home near Woodstock to raise money for his medical bills. Word spread and his comeback followed. He recorded new albums, "Dirt Farmer" and "Electric Dirt". Both deservedly won Grammys.

I went to one of these at-home concerts in 2009 and it was among the most memorable experiences of my life. That night, as often by this time, he couldn't sing, but it didn't seem to matter. You had his drumming and his presence. I wrote a piece about the concert for the Financial Times: it's here if you're curious.

The great man's taste in material is still broad and impeccable. Sets change almost entirely from show to show but last weekend there was a judicious sprinkling of Band classics - including a version of "It Makes No Difference" that would make a dead man weep - blues and country numbers, two contributions from the Grateful Dead songbook, and surprises such as "Do Right Woman" in a rendering that would have Aretha Franklin smiling.

Helm has surrounded himself with 11 superb musicians who are tight, yet fresh and relaxed. With nothing to prove, there is no showing off; the impression is of unstressed reserves of talent wherever you look on the stage. (Well, strictly speaking, there is no stage.) On the night in question, Helm was barely missed as a singer - the highest tribute one could pay to Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Brian Mitchell and daughter Amy Helm, fine singers all, who shared the vocals.

I mention in the article that we didn't do an interview--he was too tired, and I was too elated--but he invited my wife and me for a chat in his kitchen after the show. I asked him what he was listening to these days and he said, "Have you heard the Holmes Brothers?" I hadn't. It was a good recommendation and I pass it along from the man himself. Listen to "Everything is Free" from Simple Truths". Amy's records with Ollabelle are great too. Try "Northern Star" from "Riverside Battle Songs".

Not much more to say. I'll give "It Makes No Difference" another spin.

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Clive Crook is a senior editor of The Atlantic and a columnist for Bloomberg View. He was the Washington columnist for the Financial Times, and before that worked at The Economist for more than 20 years, including 11 years as deputy editor. Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics. More

Crook writes about the intersection of politics and economics.

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