One of the most influential roots-rock musicians of the classic rock era, multi-instrumentalist Levon Helm (1940-2012) was the drummer and a principal vocalist for The Band, which was perhaps the premiere American roots-rock group of the 1970s. After The Band broke up in the late '70s, Helm pursued solo work and numerous projects with other artists and helped reunite The Band in the early '80s. A struggle with cancer sidelined Helm for several years, but he returned in full force in 2007, with the first of a string of powerful late-career albums, crafting some of the most potent "Americana" music of the early 2000s, right up until he passed away in 2012. Here's a quick look at his work...
Levon Helm "The Ties That Bind: The Best Of... 1975-1996" (Raven, 1999)
Levon Helm "Levon Helm & The RCO All-Stars/American Son" (Raven, 2011)
A twofer reissue that includes Helm's solo stuff from 1977 and '80... Both albums are also listed below.
Levon Helm "Take Me To The River: 1978-1982" (Raven, 2010)
A twofer reissue that includes his 1978 and '82 self-titled solo albums, plus a smidge of bonus material...
Levon Helm "...And The RCO All-Stars" (1977)
Levon Helm "American Son" (MCA, 1980)
Levon Helm "Levon Helm" (Capitol, 1982)
Levon Helm/Various Artists "THE LEGEND OF JESSE JAMES" (A&M, 1980)
(Produced by Glyn Johns)
Helm had top billing and the lead role as "Jesse James" in this musical concept album, which also featured Johnny Cash, Charlie Daniels and Emmylou Harris, as well as some tasty guitat licks from Albert Lee, who was then in the Emmylou Harris Hot Band.
Levon Helm & The Crowmatix "Souvenir, Vol. 1" (Woodstock, 2000)
Levon Helm & the RCO All Stars "Live At The Palladium: NYC, New Years Eve 1977" (Levon Helm Studios, 2006)
Levon Helm "The Midnight Ramble Sessions, Volume One" (Levon Helm Studios, 2006) (CD/DVD)
Levon Helm "The Midnight Ramble Sessions, Volume Two" (Levon Helm Studios, 2006)
Levon Helm "Dirt Farmer" (Vanguard, 2007)
(Produced by Larry Campbell & Amy Helm)
An extraordinary album by one of the great progenitors of the roots-Americana genre... Levon Helm, drummer of the late, great, fabled Band, has been off the radar for a while -- a battle with throat cancer put him out of commission as a singer -- but now he's back, and with a vengeance. In his younger years, Helm was one of those rockers who sang like he was an old geezer... Now he really is an old geezer, and he wears it well: his ragged, raspy vocals have never sounded better and the world-weariness he summoned in the 'Sixties is more potent and profound now, with each turn of phrase sculpted into pure, rugged, unmistakable Helm. Although he made his mark playing rock and R&B in the Hawks and The Band, Helm also has serious Southern country roots, having grown up in rural Arkansas listening to raw blues and real hillbilly music in the 1940s and '50s when the music was still a small-time, intimate, authentic, local experience. He summons those times with vivid power, mixing old-time classics like "The Blind Child," "False Hearted Lover" and "Single Girl, Married Girl," with new tunes, including songs from Paul Kennerley, Steve Earle and Julie & Buddy Miller, whose spooky gospel song, "Wide River to Cross" rightfully closes the set... Helm sets a funky tone, but also digs deep into the hard, crusty soil of American rural music as his daughter, Amy, buoys him with some truly gorgeous harmonies. (I'm gonna have to give her band, Ollabelle, another listen...!) Anyway, it's hard to pick favorites on an album like this, since there really isn't a false note on the entire record... One of the best albums of '07: it's really that good.
Levon Helm "Electric Dirt" (Vanguard, 2009)
(Produced by Larry Campbell)
Another doozy of an album by Americana elder Levon Helm, a founding member of the fabled Band, whose previous solo disc, Dirt Farmer was a powerful blast from the raw heart of American roots music. This record picks up where that one left off, and while Farmer was more on the acoustic side, they share the same vibe, a rough-edged, unruly intelligence and appreciation for the joys of a life that can be awfully hard at times. He opens with a cover of an old Grateful Dead song, "Tennessee Jed," and that sets the tone for the rest of the album. This is a collection of chunky, untumbled gems -- a more timid musician might work this stuff over and over until everything was nice and smooth, but Helm just splits the rocks open with a hammer and lets each jewel shimmer in the sun, jagged, natural and raw. You'll wanna check this one out.
The Band/Various Artists "The Last Waltz" (DVD) (MGM, 1978)
Levon Helm "Ain't In It For My Health: A Film About Levon Helm" (Kino Films, 2010) (DVD)
Various Artists "Love For Levon: A Benefit To Save The Barn" (DVD) (Time-Life, 2013)
A 2-DVD, 2-CD set featuring contributions from pretty much every cool roots musician you can imagine...
Hick Music Index