Levon Helm, the legendary Band member and beloved drummer/rock icon, left us last spring at the age of 71--but, as all legends do, he lives on in the hearts of his fans.
And, in the case of Helm, he had some quite famous fans. A star-studded collective of musicians from all genres gathered in New Jersey last October to pay tribute to Helm--the resulting concert raising money earmarked to keep Helm's Woodstock barn and studio in his family's possession. Some of the names involved included Roger Waters, My Morning Jacket, John Mayer, Joe Walsh, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Gregg Allman, Bruce Hornsby, Ray LaMontagne, John Hiatt, Grace Potter, Lucinda Williams, John Prine, Marc Cohn, Jakob Dylan, Joan Osborne, and more.
Fans who were unable to attend the show can now see it in its entirety with the release of the Love For Levon DVD this week. We at Yahoo! Music have an exclusive clip for preview, featuring John Mayer and Ray LaMontagne performing "Tears Of Rage."
We also had the opportunity to talk to Grace Potter, who provided a rendition of the Bob Dylan-penned "I Shall Be Released" for the show. Potter spoke to us about her participation in the event, her history as a Helm fan, and how deeply her heart was in the project overall.
Yahoo! Music: Can you talk about what Levon Helm meant to you personally as a musician?
Grace Potter: Levon was basically one of the reasons that the band became the band--not the Band, the band...my band [the Nocturnals]. Because when we were just getting started, I wasn't really sure what sort of music I was going to make. I was drawn to a more folk-oriented, quiet-sounding setup and more solo work--as most musicians do, they start by themselves. So when Matt, my drummer, presented to me "Let's start a band," I was like, "I dunno."
He said, "Let me just show you what I'm talking about. " And he sat me down and put on The Last Waltz--that opening scene with Levon singing and playing the drums. The energy of the band and the music just absolutely surrounded me, and it sunk in that that was my future. It was truly the look on Levon's face--the joy in all of his performances that really made it clear to me that you can find a career and find joy in doing what you love.
How did you get involved in the Love For Levon tribute specifically?
It's actually a pretty amazing story. [My drummer's] mom actually sent him a clipping from the newspaper--she saw an ad for a Levon Helm tribute concert. Now, keep in mind, she is in her mid-70s and is not, like, up on the whole music scene--she happened to be reading the New York Times, and there happened to be an ad. And she sends us the clipping, and writes this cute little note saying "Shouldn't you guys be a part of this?" We had no idea because we were off on tour and we'd missed the window. And we were freaking out thinking we were going to miss it completely. So we called our management and immediately said "Oh my gosh, we have to be a part of this." And lo and behold, a few days later, my good friend Don Was [who served as musical director for the project] was on the phone, and we were scheming up what kind of contribution we could make.
So, it was all due to your drummer's mom!
The inspiration and the love we feel for Levon was so deep-seated that his mother, who doesn't really know much about the deep wells of rock 'n' roll, picked up on it.
Were you allowed to choose which song you wanted to perform, or did you have some direction on that?
My friends My Morning Jacket were a part of the event as well--we've been buddies for a while, and my initial instinct was: Why don't I just jump in with them. I knew that our whole band wasn't going to be there. So, my first suggestion was, what are they doing? And all the songs they were doing were some of my favorites, but it was already worked out they were going to do it with Roger Waters.
So my next thought...I was thinking about Van Morrison. In The Last Waltz Van Morrison did an unbelievable appearance; he did "Caravan" and it was just mindblowing, tore the house down, sold it for me. So I thought about "Caravan"--because that's very much my personality, the girl who comes out and kicks a bunch of microphones over (laughs). But at the end of the day Don [Was] recalled a YouTube of me performing "I Shall Be Released" by myself under a metal sculpture at Bonnaroo from, like, 2006. He remembered being really intrigued by it. He said "What about that?" I said, "Of course that's my favorite song," but I just assumed one of the bigger artists would have already taken it, or that it would be in the encore and the whole group would have did it, kinda like they did in The Last Waltz. So I just assumed it was out of the question that I would perform that song. It was without a doubt my first choice but I didn't even verbalize it until Don suggested it. So that was pretty amazing.
Can you earmark one moment of the entire event that stood out to you as personally the most important or affecting?
It was definitely the encore, standing next to Mavis Staples and Roger Waters, and looking to one side and looking to the other, and feeling the presence of Levon. It was like he was there. I think we collectively felt that, in that moment, he was smiling so hard. It was probably halfway through "The Weight," right after Mavis's verse, that I just got chills and couldn't stop smiling and just really felt his presence. Very heavy. Very very cool.
And poignant…when Roger Waters got his hat that Levon had given him and hung it on the mic stand, I half expected the hat to just levitate and Levon to materialize. But of course he didn't (laughs).