There was an informal poll on some music website a few years ago asking contributors to nominate candidates for the Best American Band Ever, and immediately I shot back “The Band.” Then I was reminded that 4/5ths of the members were Canadian. Yeah, I know. Still: The Band. I don’t have to defend that, do I? Three lead singers who somehow managed to simultaneously inhabit soul, country, blues and rock, and impeccable songwriting, and musicianship that was as profane as roadhouse rockabilly and as sublime as white gospel, and Canadian or not, they sort of invented what we now know as Americana.
All three vocalists could make you weep, and then they could turn around and howl with joy. The Band could do Motown and Little Richard, give Dylan the best musical support he ever had, get people like Eric Clapton and George Harrison to seethe with envy, make Elton John and Richard Thompson and Rod Stewart rethink everything. Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson (alphabetically, because no one in that crew deserves top billing) were the best, if you can say that sort of thing. Who was better?
Now Rick, Richard and Levon are gone, which means all the voices are gone, which means one more link broken. Other people will play and sing The Band’s songs, but no one from The Band will, and that closes the door on that. I guess Robbie and Garth could find some other guys, but they’ve never shown any inclination to do so in all the years since The Last Waltz, so no reason to expect that now.
I bought tickets for Levon’s Ramble at the Ryman scheduled for a couple of weeks from now, and today I got an e-mail apologizing for the cancellation. I was so looking forward to going to seeing that on my Nashville trip (hell, it was pretty much the reason I booked the Nashville trip), and it saddens me that I didn’t get the chance to see him one more time. The first time was way way back, the first time The Band played the Fillmore East; I had seats up close, and watched them interact, and it wasn’t their most well-oiled set, but when they clicked, they made most other bands seem slack and immature. I caught them a number of times after that, New Year’s Eve at the Academy of Music during the Rock of Ages run, and with Bob Dylan at the Garden. And at Watkins Glen. The last time I saw Levon, Garth and Rick on stage was at the Dylan 30th Anniversary Concert in October 1992, where they played “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”
I’ve read a lot of touching obituaries on Levon, and this isn’t meant to be anything as comprehensive as that. You can read books on the importance of The Band, and you should. But I’ve been playing Levon’s music over the past few days; the other afternoon, I even dug out two of his solo albums, both of them titled Levon Helm, one on ABC, one on Capitol, and although neither one is anything like him in peak form, I simply felt like hearing Levon sing songs that I haven’t heard him sing over and over. It was a way of imagining that there’s a lot of unfamiliar Levon Helm music out there to discover. I guess I was trying to trick myself, but I don’t really need to do that; the music that I’ve listened to, and know deep in my bones, is music I’m never going to get tired of. Safe passage on the mystery train, Levon.