May 2012 Newsletter
LEVON HELM & THE BAND: THE VERY BEST
It has been just about a week since we lost Levon Helm. Richard Manuel's scarified, tormented howl and Rick Danko's pained, angelic tenor always shivered with vulnerability--they sang as if possessed with the tangible knowledge that the blues can actually kill you. Levon Helm's lusty, burnished growl, however, never belied a trace of weakness, it raged against the dying of the light. You could be forgiven for believing it was invincible. That Levon's voice, after being silenced for a spell by throat cancer, came back for one of the most spectacular second acts in American music only added to his legend.
Levon's passing is a fitting occasion to reevaluate The Band's all-encompassing influence on modern American rock n' roll. Simply stated, I cannot think of many relevant American bands that do not owe them a significant debt. Consider some of the critically-lauded American rock bands from the last 20 years--aside from obvious similarities in general instrumentation, each of these bands has employed very specific sonic references that can be clearly traced back to The Band. Garth Hudson's vast catalog of keyboard tones, from rustic Lowrey organ to otherworldly synthesizer sounds, is the clear precedent for similar textures on everything from Counting Crows' "Mr. Jones and Me" to Wilco's more recent experimental compositions. Take one listen to the harmonies on Dawes' recent song "So Well" and tell me tell me those boys never listened to "It Makes No Difference."
The Band's relevance extends beyond instrumentation, influencing many of the general trends in the modern music business. You can chalk up much of the recent trend in home recording to The Band. Whenever a band wants to get back to its roots or project some air of authenticity, you always hear of them holing up in some makeshift home studio, trying to bottle some of the casual magic that was so evident on The Band's debut or Dylan's "The Basement Tapes." Wilco's Chicago "Loft" hangout/studio is an urban Big Pink. Retiring to a house in the woods to record emotionally cathartic songs in a haunting falsetto is the backstory for Bon Hiver's debut smash, but it also describes "Music From Big Pink" to a tee. And if the current indie rock trend towards extravagant beards and old-school facial hair isn't at least partially inspired by The Band, then it's not as cool by half.
As for The Band's influence on my own work, I am an unabashed devotee. I was truly flattered when the approach to my Memorial Hall Recordings cd--historically-influenced material, recorded in a non-studio environment with guitar, keyboards, accordions and mandolins--was compared favorably to The Band in reviews. Little Vigils was recorded in a Maine farmhouse, though I upgraded the rhythm section to the attic. More recently, my guitar playing in the bluegrass band Barnstar! owes less to the crisp flatpicking of Tony Rice than it does to Robbie Robertson's jagged leads. And every time we sing in three or four part harmony I am not thinking "high and lonesome" so much as "should I be Richard, Rick or Levon?"
There are not many bands working today who will ever make the cover of TIME magazine, as The Band did in 1970. And even if they did, traditional media has become so fragmented and lost so much market share that it wouldn't matter nearly as much. There will never be another Band, and Levon's passing drives that point home with, to quote Spinal Tap, "too much fucking perspective."
Farewell, Levon. "You take what you need and leave the rest, but they should never have taken the very best."
HEADS UP: Barnstar!, my quasi-imaginary bluegrass band, is about to get pretty freakin' real when we go on tour for the first time next month. It's only 3 dates, but we're leaving the state for the first time, playing during the daylight hours in our first festival, and God knows what other developmental milestones we'll hit. You don't want to miss this, as I never know when the next tour will be. We'll be in Vergennes, VT (6/8), Bellows Falls VT (6/9) and Cambridge MA (6/10), and details are on the tour page. C'mon!
MP3 of the MONTH: As if it could be anything but a cover of a classic by The Band! This month's track is a cover of "Ophelia," recorded recently in a couple of hours at Cellar Sounds. You can download it for free for the month of May on my Bandcamp page, where, incidentally, you can also download all sorts of non-free music by yours truly. Enjoy!
One more for April...
Sat Apr 28 - Carriage House Series, Lord Manor, Monson MA - 7 pm
It's been 10 years since I released The Memorial Hall Recordings, recorded live in an old Civil War-era memorial Hall in this town. I'm super excited to come back and revisit the material for a more intimate, 50-seat show. There are about 10 tickets left...reserve yours today.
Fri May 4 - One Longfellow Square, Portland ME - 8 pm
It's always great to return to my former stomping grounds of Portland ME, where I lived for a few years while my wife was in graduate school. What's even better is when I can return to share the stage with one of my singing, songwriting, sideman heroes, Darrell Scott. I can't wait.
Sat May 5 - Club Passim, Cambridge MA - 8 pm
This is one of the most venerable folk venues in the entire country and I also happen to feel a bit like it's my living room. This is my ground zero, the place where I was initiated into the musical circles I travel in now, orbiting around folks like Lori McKenna, Josh Ritter, Jeffrey Foucault and countless others. My policy whenever I play Passim is simple: leave it on the stage. If you want to know what me and my music are about, you have to see me play here. I'll be joined by Charlie Rose on banjo, pedal steel and God knows what else, and Peyton Tochterman will open. Come on out!
Sat May 12 - TomTom Founders Festival, Charlottesville VA (with Josh Ritter)
Sat May 19 - Cherokee Creek Music Festival, Cherokee TX (with Josh Ritter)
ON THE HORIZON:
Fri June 8 - Vergennes Opera House, Vergennes VT** **Barnstar!
Sat June 9 - Roots on the River, Bellows Falls VT**
Sun June 10 - Club Passim, Cambridge MA**
Wed June 27 - Drylongso Coffeehouse, North Conway NH