When Ronnie Hawkins followed Conway Twitty’s advice and moved up to Canada from his native Arkansas on the chance his style of rock and roll would catch on, he brought his band with him. While the rest of them fell by the wayside fairly early on, the drummer he brought up from Arkansas stayed on when he hired local Canadian youngsters to form his newest version of The Hawks, his backing band. Save for a brief time when the rest of the group traveled to England with Bob Dylan and he stayed home, Levon Helm was the drummer for The Band until they retired in 1978.
While primarily the drummer, he would also step out from behind his kit to play mandolin and was one of the key voices giving the band their distinctive vocal sound. While he didn’t actually write any of the songs the group was famous for, it was his Arkansas growl fans associated with classics like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. If there was something odd about a group of musicians from South Western Ontario playing music with roots planted firmly in American soil, Helm’s presence gave them an aura of authenticity. After The Band broke up Helm went on to do some acting in movies and kept on making music. However, it was the setting up of a 200-seat performance space in Woodstock, New York, The Barn, which might prove his longest lasting legacy after his death on April 19, 2012.
Starting in 2004 Helm would host what he called Midnight Rambles, featuring some of the biggest names in the music industry. Over the years he and his band were joined by the likes of Elvis Costello, Dr. John, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, and a host of others. When it was discovered that the throat cancer he had beaten in the late 1990s had returned, his dearest wish was the concerts at The Barn would continue after he passed. In an attempt to help out, a bunch of his friends and colleagues got together to play some of his favourite tunes on October 3, 2012 at the Izod Centre in New Jersey. That concert has now been packaged as a two-DVD, two-CD set from StarVista Entertainment called simply Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn.
With Helm’s longtime guitarist Larry Campbell and producer/bassist Don Was acting as co-musical directors, a plethora of musicians from all eras and genres sat in with one of the two house bands, The Levon Helm Band or an all-star band assembled by Was, for the night. As on any of these occasions where such a mixed bag of performers are assembled in attempt to provide something for everyone, inevitably there will be some you’re not going to like. However, the real pleasure about an event like this are those people who take you by surprise and step outside their normal box.
One of the highlights of the night for me was Bruce Hornsby singing “Anna Lee”. Accompanied only by Larry Campbell on violin, with Amy Helm and Theresa Williams singing harmonies, Hornsby sat on a folding chair strumming a dulcimer and sang the song with an aching simplicity. It was mountain music at its finest as the words and music floated out over 20,000 rapt audience members. It was one of those magical moments in music where it seems like the world is holding its breath so as not to disturb what’s being created.
I’ve never been a big fan of Pink Floyd, so I’m not really familiar with what Roger Waters is capable of doing. After joining My Morning Jacket for a rendition of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, he then stepped up to the microphone and sang a song I wasn’t familiar with, “Wide River To Cross”. It was the perfect choice for both the evening and the performer. The song, written by Buddy and Julie Miller and recorded by Helm on his Dirt Farmer CD, was a poignant reminder of how Helm wasn’t able to complete his personal journey. “I’m only halfway home, I’ve gotta journey on/To where I’ll find, find the things I have lost/I’ve come a long long road but still I’ve got some miles to go/I’ve got a wide, a wide river to cross”.
Water’s voice might not be what it once was, but his delivery on this song was spot on. He showed an impressive emotional depth and range and allowed the song’s lyrics to dictate his delivery. He, like Hornsby earlier, let himself be a conduit for the song and the charged emotional atmosphere of the evening. As a result he gave a remarkably soulful and honest performance.
Of course there were some other fine performances on the night. Mavis Staples singing “Move Along Train” showed she can still hold her own on stage with people half her age. It was cool to hear Gregg Allman join his former band mate Warren Haynes from the Allman Brothers for a solid rendition of “Long Black Veil”. John Hiatt rocked his way through The Band’s “Rag Mama Rag” while David Bromberg and Joan Osborne burned up “Don’t Do It”. However, in spite of these good performances, there was also a sense of something being off about the evening. Whenever anybody attempted to sing a Band song, try as they might, it just didn’t sound right. I kept waiting to hear the distinctive vocal harmonies of the original which made the songs unique and they never appeared. Even when everybody came on stage for a finale of “The Weight”, they weren’t able to capture the sound which made the song so great.
That wasn’t the only thing off about the evening either. There were names people were very carefully not mentioning either, on stage or on the second DVD disc containing the interviews with those participating. For all everybody loved Helm, he didn’t write any of the songs performed during this show. The majority of The Band material performed was written by Robbie Robertson, and it was like he doesn’t exist anymore. I also found it weird neither Ronnie Hawkins or Bob Dylan were mentioned, let alone taking part. After all, they were the two men who gave Helms his start and established him as a professional musician. Maybe Dylan was too busy, but why wasn’t Hawkins there? He’s still performing and would have fit in a lot more comfortably than some of the people chosen to perform.
Technically speaking you can’t find any fault with the production of the DVD as both the audio and the video are clean and the recording sounds great in 5.1 surround sound. There’s a couple of times where its obvious camera cues were missed as they are late focusing on a soloist, but you have to expect stuff like that at a live concert where there’s been very little rehearsal. The second DVD contains interviews with all the performers, and to be honest I didn’t wade through them all. The ones I did watch were the usual sort of thing, why they did the gig and when did they first meet/hear Helm. There was only one piece of rehearsal footage included in the special features and its pretty much identical to the performance given during the show. The two CDs in the set contain all the songs from the DVD so you can listen to the music anytime and anywhere.
Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn is a well-produced recording of a concert given October 3, 2012 in honour of Levon Helm to try and ensure the continuation of the work he started when he was alive. Levon Helm Studios, of which The Barn (where the Midnight Ramble performances take place) is part of, is a place for musicians of all genres and ages to record, perform, and learn. It was Helm’s attempt to keep a little of the style of music he championed during his career alive and of interest to a new generation. In these days of slick commercialism, the rough-hewn honesty of his music and work will be sorely missed. While this isn’t the perfect recording, like Helm, its heart is in the right place, which more than makes up for any flaws.