Friday, 20 April 2012

RIP Levon Helm- The Harvest King

Long live the Harvest King, his spirit drifts across the Delta plains, in the dim of the harvest moon that jungle beat has them out on the floor. The sound ruffles the leaves of the magnolia trees as it spreads out and moves across the plains.

Levon Helm was the epitome of what the spirit of music is all about, he was passionate about the integrity, honesty and purity of music, he was fiercely independent and refused to bow to the unreasonable whims of the music industry, he did it on his own terms. He was a truly creative musician driven by the desire to get people on their feet and dancing, that was his principle aim and it remained so right through his career. As a drummer he had few peers, he created a style that was slavishly copied by others, Levon was about the song about how he could enhance it and if it meant stepping back for others to take a more prolific role then he was happy to do it. 

He was an amazing rhythm and blues drummer, he could lock that backbeat and really drive a song to dizzying heights. There was never any flashiness just for the sake of it but if it was required to heighten the sense of drama then he was more than apt to the task. You only need to listen to his early work with Ronnie Hawkins, on songs like Matchbox where his machine gun rolls at the end of the song are simply amazing. His driving style was also captured on songs like Who Do You Love and Bo Diddley. I've written reasonably extensively in past blogs about some of the pre Band recordings that Levon played on and these recordings also highlight his in the pocket style. They also feature for the first time Levon the vocalist, and what a distinct vocalist he was, he had a strong rhythm and blues growl on all of the early recordings.

His drumming in The Band was more stripped back, it was softer but always retained his syncopated feel. The snare was flatter that crisp snap wasn't required as the songs took on a different hue from the earlier R&B recordings. I remember watching a DVD on the history of the Band and Ringo Starr commented on how he was influenced by Levon's sound and to try and get that flat sound he resorted to putting bedsheets on the toms. Levon could play just behind the beat on a song, he could give it a shove with a couple of extra kicks on the bass drum he developed a style that was open to improvisation, he would sometimes halve the beat to give the song more space, You can find no better example of this approach than Up On Cripple Creek from the Band's self titled second album (also referred to as The Brown album). It has the funkiest opening Levon reverts to more familiar R&B terrain but it's the way he shapes the beat applying that half time that leaves the gate open for Rick Danko to apply a gritty bass riff and for Garth to fire off that wah wah clavinet riff.

Perhaps Levon's most stirring vocal performance was The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, it drips with emotion, Levon so distinctly steps into the role of a southern farmer and former Confederate Soldier who watches his beloved land and community wrenched apart by the Civil War. "Just 18 proud and brave till a Yankee laid him in his grave" the lyrics of the song are so poignant and nostalgic and Levon knows exactly how to interpret that and to put himself thoroughly into the song, it's a truly mesmerising performance.

For a lasting live document The Last Waltz really belongs to Levon even though he was vehemently against the project his performance shines ahead of everyone else for it's spirit and his soulful performance of The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down which still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. After the demise of The Band Levon continued to record and tour, he also added acting to his lengthy resume starting with a stoic performance in A Coal Miners Daughter. In 2009 he released his first solo album in more than 25 years with Dirt Farmer which won Helm a Grammy Award for Best Americana album an award he also won this year for his live album Live At The Ryman.

Levon was a true pioneer, his voice will never lie still it will reach out over the decades and capture peoples hearts as it did more than 40 years ago.

RIP the Harvest King.

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