Though Levon Helm appears aged and frail behind his drum kit, the 69-year-old still reigns from his (drum) throne. Despite a battle with throat cancer, he continues to fight — his last two albums, both Grammy winners, prove it. His 2007 comeback album Dirt Farmer (Vanguard), his first solo studio album in more than 25 years, earned the trophy for Best Traditional Folk album. On it, his voice never diminishes despite the damage to his vocal cords — his signature throaty, Southern warble took a few years to heal and ascend beyond a whisper. It still inspires goosebumps, sounding like the oldest soul hollering out from under his skin, as it does on his albums with seminal American folk heroes The Band. On Dirt Farmer, he favored traditional, slow-burning folk arrangements to suit his restored voice. But on his 2009 follow up Electric Dirt, Helm finds his full voice again, paired with up-tempo roots rockers and preparing for the revelry at the end of the road at his old age.
A cotton farmer's son from Arkansas, Helm hooked up with a crew of musicians from Canada and dubbed the group the Hawks, famously touring as Bob Dylan's backing band and later renaming themselves simply The Band. (The group's widely distributed and coveted bootleg takes later were officially released as Dylan's The Basement Tapes in 1975.) After a brief stint working on oilrigs in the Gulf of Mexico, Helm returned to The Band, lending his haunting vocals to timeless American folk standards like "The Weight" from the group's 1968 debut Music from Big Pink, and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" from its self-titled sophomore epic. With his unmistakable voice, it was Helm's rhythm-and-blues focused drumming, fitting a pocket as thick, heavy and slow as molasses, that cemented his place among essential Americana artists.
Helm was diagnosed with cancer in 1998, and subsequent radiation treatments to remove a tumor damaged his vocal cords. Following his reclusive recovery period, Helm opened his barnyard retreat in Woodstock, N.Y., (not far from the namesake Big Pink from Music from Big Pink, a small pink house in West Saugerties, where The Band and collaborator Dylan rehearsed). It is there that Helm holds court at Midnight Ramble concerts — intimate jam sessions that sometimes run over four hours — and Helm shows no sign of slowing down. — Alex Woodward
Levon Helm Band
3:10 p.m. Sunday, April 25, Acura Stage