Almost two months ago, on April 19th, 2012, one of my absolute favorite musicians passed away after a long battle with cancer. His name was Levon Helm, and besides being one of my favorite drummers and a tremendous influence on my playing, he was widely beloved as a significant figure in the history of American music, particularly as a drummer and vocalist with The Band. There have been countless drummers who have made a lasting impact on the art of drumming and Levon is certainly among them, but I don’t know that any drummer has ever made such a lasting contribution to American music as a whole.
I won’t attempt to write a biography here, nor will I try to explain the breadth of Levon’s influence; that’s already been done by people far more knowledgeable than me. But when I heard of Levon’s passing back in April, I was deeply moved, even more than I expected to be. I grew up listening to The Band’s music as my father played their records around the house, and one of the greatest musical experiences of my life was seeing Levon perform with his friends at the Ryman Auditorium in 2008. As I’ve reflected on his life and revisited much of his music, it’s made me more aware of his brilliance than ever before, and it’s made me want to attempt to share what an impact he’s made on me.
As a total drum-nerd, I feel like I could carry on an endless conversation with other drum-nerds about the incredible qualities of Levon’s playing: the inimitable swagger of his groove, the weight of his laid-back-but-never-late backbeat, the way he often subdivided the beat in that perfect space between straight and shuffled, the creativity and orchestrations of the drum parts he wrote, and the sound of the wood-hooped, calfskin-headed drums he often used; the list goes on and on. But I think the most remarkable quality of his playing is one that appeals far beyond the drummers that appreciate his music: the way his drumming dances around his soulful, gritty vocal, reacting to it, phrasing around and in-between each line, as if the two were intimately familiar dancers perfectly matching each-other’s steps . And it wasn’t just when he was singing either; you can hear the same dance happening when any of the other amazing vocalists in The Band are taking the lead - he was paying just as much attention to their vocals as if he had been the one singing.
The video above, featuring The Band performing “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” from Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz, is a perfect example of this quality (if you get a chance to hear the original studio recording from 1969’s The Band, it may be an even better example). The feel is simply unbelievable, but I can’t get over the subtle interjections and reactions around and in-between the vocal phrases as his deeply-evocative voice tells the story of a Southerner watching his family’s entire life change forever in the midst of the American Civil War. The vocal performance itself is breathtaking, but I can’t imagine a more supportive accompaniment from the drums; it’s just perfect, and it elevates the impact of the lyrics to another level entirely.
Of all the things I love about Levon, that’s the quality that I most want to hear in my own playing. When we make music in Ferrier, one of our most important goals is to make every musical decision in a way that supports the song and moves it forward, and one of the best ways we can do that is to shape all of our instrumental performances in a way that is constantly aware of - and reactive to - Brandon’s vocal. Levon has been a huge influence on me in this regard, and I love being in a band where all the other guys have been influenced in a similar way, whether by Levon or by other remarkable musicians. It’s something this band is always striving for, and hopefully something we’re achieving more fully as we continue on our journey.
Thank you so much, Levon, for the music and the inspiration. I am forever grateful.