Judge Bill Gibron remembers the day they drove Young Mason up...or something like that.
Give 'em Hell, Helm.
With his death last April at age 71, Levon Helm became something he never really wanted to be—a musical myth. For many, The Band represent(ed) roots rock at its most meaningful and their gravel voiced drummer, it's Americana heart. From a youth spent on a cotton farm in Arkansas to a lifetime left in service of some of the best examples of the country's crazy quilt of sonic influences, his authority remains solidly encased in the bedrock of that most unique time in US cultural history. He and his bandmates backed Bob Dylan, adding the electric crush the protest poet laureate's new muse demanded. They then turned said tenure into their own space on the aural playing field, releasing classic albums like Music from Big Pink. With songs like "The Night They Drove All Dixie Down," "The Weight," and "Up On Cripple Creek," they established a legacy that continued beyond their specialized swansong—Martin Scorsese's amazing The Last Waltz.
In this case, we have a near three hour overview of Helm's career, capped off by the unusual appearance of Pink Floyd's Roger Waters as part of the tribute (apparently, The Band aided in one of the man's Wall extravaganzas, and a friendship developed between them). Bringing together a unique blend of old (John Hiatt, Gregg Allman, John Prine) and new (John Mayer, My Morning Jacking), the concert becomes a showcase of slick playing and impassioned tribute. Not surprisingly, few of his former Band buddies are present (Garth Hudson makes a stunning appearance, considering he's in his 70s, others are either long dead, or MIA) but they really aren't missed. This isn't a look at a specific group, but a specific man and his endearing presence. It's also a chance to help out Helm's pet project—a ongoing musician's retreat located in his old studio, known as The Barn, in Woodstock, New York.
It's hard to pick a highlight here, since so much of what goes on is both professional and personal. Some members of this all star showcase (Allman, Allen Toussaint, Mavis Staples) arrive alive, taken with a chance to play some amazing songs and using the opportunity to turn it out. Others, like Marc Cohn, Joe Walsh, and dad stand-in Jakob Dylan, try a bit too hard, as if they have to prove their reason for being there. Still, at nearly 155 minutes, it's the music that does the talking. From terrific takes on "This Wheel's On Fire" to Lucinda Williams' near a cappela version of "Whispering Pines," there is perfection all around. Across the 27 selections, there's nary a misstep. There are also moments of telling transcendence. Song interpretation is tricky, but everyone does Helm proud. Even Waters, who one worries would look foolish among all the slow Southern drawl of the music, makes "Wide River to Cross" his post-Floyd own. By the time the entire ensemble break into "The Weight," we've witnessed something startling: an compendium of famous faces and voices playing humble for their subject of their honor.
Now, the bad news. This review really can't address the final tech specs of this release. Of sure, there is an entire second DVD filled with rehearsal footage, interviews, and other behind the scenes material. But the cover art makes it very clear that this is a "Promo" copy, complete with studio contacts and company info—and from a sound and vision position, you can tell. If you are going to buy this set, go for the Blu-ray release. The image offered to this critic was loaded with digital issues (pixelating, interference, ghosting) that, one imagines, will be cleaned up by the HD transfer. Similarly, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is immersive and clean, but there must be a better, more powerful version out there. As for the added content, it's great. It explains almost everyone's reasons for being involved, and offers a few anecdotal insights that only such bonus features can find.
As a testament to a man who made music as much of his life as the country he loved and lived in, Love for Levon is excellent. Too bad the final product wasn't available for review. One imagines it's great. With the show itself, one doesn't have to visualize. All they have to do is listen.
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