Concerts can become such a vivid part of who we are. You can trace a time and state of mind to the real special ones. You can trace friendships. You may have become friends at a concert. There are some people you may only see at annual concerts—for example at music festivals, at WUMB member concerts, Grateful Dead shows… Certain concerts are not just music shows. They become life experiences.
So when a group that’s meant so much to you breaks up, it’s like you lose a friend.
For the most part, it’s inevitable that a group will eventually break up. At some point, members decide they don’t want to go on the road anymore. They lose the creative buzz. Those old Artistic Differences crop up. Etc, etc. But has any group ended it with the panache of The Band?
Talk about doing it right. When The Band decided the time had come to call it quits, they had a farewell concert at Winterland in San Francisco, where they invited an all-star lineup of musical friends. And they had the show on Thanksgiving Day (how poetic)… with dinner for the concert-goers. Thankfully the concert was recorded. We know it as The Last Waltz. If you’ve not heard it, get the 4-CD box set version from the library and spend a rainy afternoon with it. The spirit and the mix of emotions is evident in the recordings. The liner notes make you feel like you are part of the concert.
Of course, the individual members of The Band went on to do notable projects of their own. In 1986, Richard Manuel tragically ended his life. In 1993—17 years after The Last Waltz—Rick Danko, Levon Helm, and Garth Hudson reunited as The Band for three more albums (Jubilation in 1993, High On The Hog in 1996, and Jubilation in 1998). Robbie Robertson maintained his solo status. Rick Danko also did two albums in the 1990’s with Eric Andersen and Jonas Fjeldt, before he died of heart failure in 1999.
Levon Helm built a home studio in Woodstock, NY in 1975. In 2004, it became the site of monthly concerts he’d do with his band and various musician friends. Sometimes the music would start around 7:30 at night and wouldn’t end until long after midnight. They came to be known as the Midnight Rambles. Between those two events, Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1996. But he beat it. His voice was a little more ragged for wear, but he continued to record. His albums from 2007, 2009, and 2011 all won Grammies. His daughter Amy of the band Ollabelle often sang with him. That’s a nice comeback from being diagnosed with cancer.
But as you know, the cancer came back and claimed Levon on April 19th (he had been well enough to perform in March, so the onset must have been quick). Levon and Robbie Robertson were apparently estranged since the days of The Band’s break-up. But at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame ceremony on April 16th, Robertson made a speech sending “love and prayers” to Helm. And he was able to see Levon in the hospital the next day.
Saturday April 28th from 11am to Noon, WUMB will air a special on Levon Helm. Tune in and re-experience your time with Levon’s music. And by all means, feel free to reply and share your stories of Levon Helm--solo and with The Band. Perhaps you attended a Midnight Ramble. Or maybe you spent Thanksgiving 1976 at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco…