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Clippings: Helm offers miraculous performance

I took in a Levon Helm concert a couple of weeks ago, and before he even got to song number four I had a very bad feeling that I was witnessing his last performance ever. The show was a birthday gift for my son, so, needless to say, the star attraction’s demise would have put a real damper on the celebration.
For those of you who don’t know, Levon Helm is a living legend. At 17 he hit the road as a rock ’n’ roll drummer for Ronnie Hawkins. Less than 10 years later he and his band, The Hawks, were backing up Bob Dylan when Dylan decided famously (or infamously) to go electric. Around the same time, Levon’s band became simply The Band and he and Rick Danko, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson shot to stardom with the release of their first two albums.
By the mid-1970s some members of The Band were getting a little road weary and so the group staged a farewell concert at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Thanksgiving Day, 1976. The concert was filmed by director Martin Scorsese and it became the 1978 documentary “The Last Waltz.”
When I was a teenager “The Last Waltz” came into rotation on HBO and I started watching it over and over. The concert and film featured guest performances by giants of rock like Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Bob Dylan. It also featured people my unexpanded ears had never heard before. People like Muddy Waters and Paul Butterfield and Dr. John and, most enjoyably, Van Morrison. Morrison looked like a middle-aged Hobbit stuffed into a one-size-too-small polyester jumpsuit, but he grumbled and wailed and kicked his way across the stage with such exuberance that I vowed to never again judge a book by its cover. Of course, I didn’t know who The Band was either when I first saw “The Last Waltz,” but their sound, their style, their passion and their drummer, Levon, and his unique, bluesy, soulful, country voice pulled me in and haven’t let go for more than 30 years.
Since then, Levon Helm has worked as a solo artist, toured with a reformed The Band (minus Robbie Robertson), acted in several movies (he played Chuck Yeager’s Air Force buddy in “The Right Stuff”), wrote an autobiography and, after battling throat cancer and the temporary loss of his voice, came back as strong as ever and won two Grammys for his last two albums, “Dirt Farmer” in 2007 and “Electric Dirt” in 2009.
On Aug. 26 The Levon Helm Band played at Suicide Six Ski Resort outside of Woodstock. My son and I were sitting dead center, just four rows back. After a couple of great opening acts, Levon took the stage. He looked thin and frail. He looked like a man who has seen all that he has seen and lived to tell about it. He looked all of his 71 years but he also looked like he was ready to kick it. And he did. For two songs. Then he stood up and left the stage.
There was some confusion before it was announced Levon was going to take a break and a backup drummer took Levon’s place. A break after just two songs didn’t seem right. The pit in my stomach grew when I could see Levon under a side tent coughing into a towel. He was quickly surrounded by crew people and I barely registered the music coming from the stage as I kept trying to catch a glimpse of Levon, hoping to see him back on his feet. With a great sense of relief he emerged to play the next song.
My relief only lasted until the end of the song when Levon stood again and left the stage. Things looked worse this time around. Paramedics could be seen to the far side of the stage. From my seat it looked like Levon was lying down. Someone was shining two flashlights down on him while others huddled around nervously. When the side tent curtain walls were hung so the audience couldn’t see in I really felt a sense of dread. This was it, I thought, Levon Helm’s last performance. But just when things looked most dire, Levon emerged, like a phoenix, and rejoined his band for a song called “By the Sweat of My Brow.” I don’t know if that song had already been on the set list, but it was a good choice.
The rest of the night Levon performed like he was the youngest guy in the band, not the oldest. And everything centered on him. His enthusiasm was infectious and band members constantly looked to him, not just for musical direction, but also to catch his smile and his laugh and his approval. During one song, band member Teresa Williams dug so deep into her vocals that even she seemed surprised by what she found. The crowd went wild but she looked first to Levon. They shared a private moment of mutual appreciation, then she took her bow.
My son and I agreed it was one of the best concerts we had ever been to. It could have been my nostalgia for the music that turned me on 30 years ago. It could easily have been the adrenaline produced by witnessing what seemed to be a near-death experience and miraculous recovery. But really it was the music. Levon Helm’s body and voice may have been a little weak, but the joy with which he played was strong. Strong enough to lift us all to our feet.

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