With today’s passing of Levon Helm, rock and roll has lost a man whose voice could inject soul into a folk tune and funk into a country stomp. In concert with his quartet of companions, The Band, he created a catalog of rock and roll classics. Here are the cuts that define The Band and the artistry of the man behind the drum kit.
“King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” (from The Band)
The final song to appear on The Band’s second album, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” is considered one of Robbie Robertson’s finest songwriting moments. Spoken from the point-of-view of a farmer struck with devastating misfortune, the song underscored the serious side of band known for having no shortage of humor.
Beyond defining the band’s collective social consciousness, the cut showed how Levon’s rusty baritone could add weight to the group’s vocal arrangements. It’s Levon’s voice during the chorus that anchors Richard Manuel’s otherwise fervent gospel during the verse, a smokey dose of yin to Richard’s yang.
“Up On Cripple Creek” (from The Band)
When the general populace talks about drummers, it’s usually the flashy ones whose names get mentioned most frequently and most loudly. When drummers talk about drummers, they talk about Levon Helm.
From the first two thwacks of the snare drum — tuned to the earthy tones of a cardboard box — Levon drops “Up On Cripple Creek” so deeply “into the pocket” that, 40 years later, we’re still fishing for the loose change and lint at the bottom. It would also be one of his definitive vocal performances if they’d not recorded…
“The Weight” (from The Last Waltz)
The whole idea of The Last Waltz, of course, was to create a sort of American musical history through renditions of their music in the company of their friends and heroes.
The choice to perform “The Weight” in the company of the Staples Singers was a stroke of brilliance that remains among the greatest moments in rock history. One might expect Levon to be rendered bashful as he sung in the midst of the great Pops and Mavis and family.
Instead, he executed one of his most beautiful performances, all the while tapping out the tempo on his gorgeous wood grain Ludwig. For this four minutes and 28 seconds alone, we have reason to be grateful.
– Michael Verity