Levon Helm is a remarkable figure in modern American music. Growing up the son of a cotton farmer in Turkey Scratch, a hamlet west of Helena, Arkansas, Levon heard the great Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys at the age of six and decided at that moment to become a musician himself.
It was just because he came from Arkansas—where the blues, country and R&B were all in full bloom in his youth—that Levon Helm has brought a rich heritage to American rock and roll. Now, at 70 and a throat cancer survivor, the great man still performs a killer show.
At the Beacon Theatre last night, Levon was hoarse—at times he seemed to barely be able to talk. However, his band picked up the vocals, with him giving most of his energy to playing the drums and mandolin. At this stage in his career, all Levon Helm has to do is turn and smile at the audience to get a huge reception. He has that much charisma.
Levon’s story is long and rich, and it’s sad that most in his audience don’t know it. While they texted and talked with each other, as most modern audiences do, many missed the big picture.
Levon started playing with Ronnie Hawkins, which later turned into the Band and a major collaboration with Bob Dylan. It was from their collaboration that The Basement Tapes made in the basement at Big Pink in Woodstock was born. As were a litany of hits by the Band that everyone knows today.
The Dylan legacy was rich at Friday’s concert. Levon was Dylan’s oldest former sideman. Larry Campbell, Dylan’s former lead guitarist, now plays and sings with Levon. Brian Mitchell, who played keyboard and accordion at the Beacon, can be heard throughout Bob Dylan's version of Return To Me on an episode of The Soprano's. The connections of the music and people go on and on.
Opening and then playing frequently during Levon’s set was Steve Earle, a prolific rock and country singer, songwriter and producer. Earle was simply fantastic, especially in a tribute to New Orleans that included This City and Mardi Gras. At Saturday’s show, Earle will be replaced by Bettye Lavette. She has some big shoes to fill.
For those who want to know more about Levon Helm and his legacy, read his great book, This Wheels on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band. A fantastic read. And also get The Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes by Greil Marcus. It will open your mind.