The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: At Home with Levon Helm in 2009
Levon Helm was the Arkansas-born drummer/singer/mandolin player with the otherwise Canadian group The Band: his brilliant playing and inimitably good-old-boy singing supplied the cornerstone for the sound of these Americana forefathers. His death yesterday brought to a close the life of a man who lived, breathed and drank American music like a sacred elixir. Levon, we salute you — and remember you as you were in this profile from Uncut in October 2009——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
If Levon Helm's studios have a Green Room, then this must be it. A ramshackle den leading off a homely wooden kitchen, it's currently crawling with musicians warming up for the Midnight Ramble, the weekly musical revue hosted by the former Band linchpin at his backwoods spread in Woodstock, New York.
Framed pictures of comrades — fallen or otherwise — cover the back wall, The Band's Rick Danko and Richard Manuel prominent among them. Conspicuously missing among these war heroes is the face of Robbie Robertson, guitarist and primary songwriter in that august quintet. It is, of course, almost exactly 40 years since The Band — defining practitioners of what we now know as "Americana" — played the Woodstock festival that wasn't in Woodstock at all. Robertson recalled the 400,000-strong audience as "a ripped army of mud people". For Helm it was simply a bad gig — he recently refused to give his blessing for any Band numbers to be included on the 6-CD box set Woodstock 40.
Slouched on the sofa, raking his fingers across an acoustic guitar, is ex-Dylan sideman Larry Campbell, the virtuoso multi-instrumentalist who doubles as Helm's bandleader and producer of the two albums that have resurrected the 69-year-old's career. Wedged in the corner and almost obscured by a vast tuba is Mr. Howard Johnson, whose services Helm has intermittently employed for 37 long years.
"Someone gimme an A?" requests Byron Isaacs, the dapper young bassist who anchors the Levon Helm Band's sound. To which Howard Johnson responds by producing what sounds like a subatomic fart from the tuba. Laughter — from Isaacs and trumpeter Steve Bernstein, and from Campbell and his Tennessee-born singer-guitarist wife Teresa Williams — ripples across the room.
Johnson, whose baritone sax was first heard with The Band on the mighty live Rock of Ages ("that might be our best one," Levon will say later), asks Campbell why "Chest Fever" goes to "a strange place" in its Midnight Ramble incarnation. With a touch of defensiveness, Campbell says he took the arrangement from the original studio version on The Band's 1968 debut Music from Big Pink. Johnson, perhaps pulling rank, says the Allen-Toussaint-arranged version on Rock of Ages makes more sense. "But hey," he concludes diffidently, "no need for anybody to get crazy about it." Later Johnson tells me the original Ramble horn section was a mere three pieces, "but when Levon heard the full section with me, that's what he wanted. It wasn't a question of money, even though it's costing him extra." At this point Lucy — a bayou mutt Helm adopted in Louisiana when he was playing a cameo role in his good buddy Tommy Lee Jones' The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005) — hobbles in with a leg bandaged after she got hit by a car on Plochmann Lane. Seems it's pretty much business as usual at the Helm homestead on a Saturday night.