Way back in the late 80s, as an impressionable fifteen year old, I saw Martin Scorsese’s movie ‘The Last Waltz’ for the first time. The film documented the star-studded final fling for The Band, showing them playing alongside a whole bunch of famous friends. I have to be honest, initially I only recorded it since Eric Clapton was featured and I was a huge fan at that time.
I enjoyed the previously unseen Clapton footage, but as the years passed, I began to enjoy other aspects of the movie far more, opening my ears to the work of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan – all of whom I knew before, but never really knew. And then there was the wonderfully eccentric Dr John, Mac Rebennack, bringing New Orleans style to the stage as only he can. Yes, this was a wonderful movie indeed.
Between the guest stars, that movie bought The Band into my teenage world. For that, I’m eternally grateful. In the late 1960’s, as their closest contemporaries were experimenting with mind bending sounds and substances, The Band were different: at a life-changing time, as other musicians pushed forward, The Band donned facial hair and great coats and made music that, too, harked back to the past: music with strong elements of folk, of country and of blues; music which often had strong story-telling elements at its core.
While The Band’s chief songwriter, Jaime ‘Robbie’ Robertson has often been praised for his gift as both song writer and arranger, in terms of stage presence and performance, The Band had a stronger figure. Drummer Levon Helm just oozed charm. He may not have written much material – contributing just three numbers to The Band’s 1970s catalogue – but his laid back drumming style, and equally laid back voice were absolutely essential to what made The Band’s sound so captivating. Helm knew he didn’t need to be flashy to create magic behind the kit – his solid grooves and Southern vocals were just perfect.
While later incarnations of The Band during the 90s never quite captured the gloriousness of the original line up, Helm could always be relied upon for his unmatchable style to hold everything together, like a true professional. His solo works in the late 2000’s and beyond have been critically acclaimed, with his 2009 release ‘Electric Dirt’ winning a Grammy Award for Best Americana Album in 2010. Despite high praise, it will always be for The Band he’ll be best remembered. Scorsese’s ‘The Last Waltz’ is a near perfect representation of the man’s charm, talent and his love of playing music. While he’ll never be replaced, let’s be thankful he left so many great recordings behind, and thanks to having an old heart when they were first recorded, most of The Band’s recordings are truly timeless. Just as I embraced the music Levon Helm helped make for the generation before mine, let us hope that future generations will also understand what made it – and continues to make it – so special.
Goodbye Levon. Wherever you are, may Spike Jones be on the box.