Thanks, Levon

When I was about twelve years old I was in the living room of my parents’ house when I heard music coming from my sister’s bedroom upstairs. At the time my musical tastes ran the gamut from the Beatles to the Beatles. There were radio songs I liked, of course, and it’s possible that by this time I’d discovered my brother’s scratchy copy of Hot Rocks, the seminal greatest hits album by The Rolling Stones. But having no money of my own with which to buy records, and a general distaste for most of the newer songs that played on the radio (disco was starting to become big), my tastes were very limited.

Which is why I still remember how the music coming from my sister’s bedroom was like a punch to the solar plexus.

Virgil Caine is the name
And I served on the Danville train
‘Til Stoneman’s cavalry came
And tore up the tracks again
In the winter of ’65
We were hungry, just barely alive
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell
It’s a time I remember oh so well

I was absolutely floored. Knocked. Out. Then when the chorus kicked in I ran up the stairs. I had to know what this song was, who was singing it, and I had to know right that minute. It was a song I’d heard before on the radio, but it was years past its time on the Top 40 station I listened to and my memory of the song was a distant one. Hearing it that day I instantly recognized it, and it touched a chord deep inside of me.

My sister showed me the album cover, which struck me as very strange. Five wet, scraggly men standing on a muddy road, and on the back cover a photo that looked like it had been taken in 1876, with a lyric from “The Dark Town Strutter’s Ball.” And was that really the name of the group? The Band? Really? On the inside of the gatefold, more photographs that looked so out of time.

My sister dutifully played some of the songs for me, including “Rag Mama Rag” because I was taking piano lessons at the time and that song had fantastic piano playing in it. At the time, a lot of the album went over my head, but “Rag Mama Rag”, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, and “Up On Cripple Creek” reached into my soul. They’re still there, though by now they’ve been joined by the rest of that extraordinary album, unquestionably one of the greatest of the rock era.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the three songs that resonated so deeply with me were sung by Levon Helm. That raspy, gravelly, yet powerful, voice added so much weight to the songs he sung. This was a man who sang with authenticity. Not pretty, his voice was real. It was the voice of the South, of cotton fields and scorching heat, of the ghosts of rebels long forgotten. Richard Manuel sang like an angel, and Rick Danko sang like a fallen angel, but Helm was the voice of the soil, never even trying to hide that Arkansas twang. So strong was his presence that it is sometimes forgotten that he was the sole American in a rock band that virtually invented Americana. A Canadian wrote the Civil War song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but he relied on the American in the band to bring the song to life, to invest in the words a dignity and pride in the enormous heritage of the Old South. It was a new voice for most rock listeners in 1969. It was not the yokel voices of the old-fashioned country singers, nor the voice of the slack-jawed redneck caricature in which so many non-Southerners believed. It was the voice of pride, not in slavery, but in sticking up for beliefs. It was the voice of defeat, and carried an unheard acknowledgment that defeat may have been necessary. It was stately and grand, overflowing with gravitas. It was the voice of Levon Helm, who gave the song a seriousness that neither Richard Manuel nor Rick Danko could approach. And the fact that this same voice could be turned to rip-roaring, rafter-swinging effect in joyful, bawdy, life-affirming songs like “Rag Mama Rag” and “Cripple Creek” only made Helm that much more valuable to both his band and rock music in general.

Recently I’ve been listening to Helm’s solo album Electric Dirt (review to follow in the April Listening Post). His voice on the 2009 album is not as strong as it once was, but considering that it was once believed he would never sing again after he was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late-90s, it is remarkable how good he sounds. The album itself is a fine one, full of the fire and vigor of a man half his age with none of his health problems. To see him do these songs in one of the Midnight Rambles he staged in his barn would have been amazing. I’ll always regret not going to one of the Rambles.

Levon Helm has died, joining his Band-mates and fellow singers Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. One of the greatest rock and roll singers of all time is silent now, but the music he left behind tells his tale.

Listen to it.

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The Listening Post: March 2012

Spring comes early, bringing much in the way of change.

  • Born Under A Bad SignAlbert King. The first Stax LP by Albert King is really a compilation of his earlier singles. It’s also one of the great blues albums of all time. From the indisputable classics of “Born Under A Bad Sign” and “Crosscut Saw”, both perennials of bar bands everywhere, to lesser-known but equally compelling songs like “Personal Manager” and “As The Years Go Passing By” Born Under A Bad Sign is the sound of one of the great bluesmen at his peak. One listen and it’s immediately clear how much debt Eric Clapton owes to King. The debt is so deep that it would be easy to mistake almost any one of King’s tight, high wire leads for Clapton’s solos on the Disraeli Gears album. King is a deep, rich singer, and his stinging guitar work can be heard in almost all subsequent electric blues. When you combine this with the fact that his backing band on the album is Booker T & The MGs, one of the greatest, most sympathetic, bands in rock history, you’ve got a combination of blues and soul that can’t be beat. It is soul that is the secret ingredient here, replacing the grit and howls of traditional blues with a texture that makes these songs stand out in a crowd. Many of the songs here have been covered to death, but these are the versions that will last. Cream’s version of “Born Under A Bad Sign,” or Free’s version of “The Hunter” may be more well-known, but these are the timeless originals that will still be here long after the covers have faded.
    Grade: A+
  • Sloe GinJoe Bonamassa. Most blues performers are eager to flaunt their intimate knowledge of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Howlin’ Wolf. With good reason, I might add. Joe Bonamassa is something of an exception. He’s far more beholden to Cream, Free, and the British Blues Boom of the 1960s than he is to the founding fathers of blues. Bonamassa is a blues-rocker, the likes of which we really don’t see much anymore. As a performer, he’s considerably better than latecomers like the pedestrian Kenny Wayne Shepherd and the execrable Jonny Lang. However, he’s also not the 21st century’s Great White Hope for blues. Stevie Ray Vaughan, he’s not. What Bonamassa is, is a decent, if somewhat sterile, singer and virtuoso guitarist who is completely besotted with late-1960s blues rock. Sloe Gin suffers from the same malady that affects too many albums in the CD era—it’s too long. That problem can be solved by eliminating the eight plus minutes of the title track, a go-nowhere cover of a song once recorded by Tim Curry (!). Minus that particular time suck, Sloe Gin is a rock-ribbed exercise in simulated British blues, of a type not heard since the heyday of Rory Gallagher. In fact, if there’s a single guitarist whom Bonamassa most closely resembles, it’s Gallagher. Like the celebrated Irish guitarist, Bonamassa mixes his hard electric blues rock with acoustic guitar workouts. Perhaps somewhat ironically, it is these acoustic tracks the provide many of the highlights of this album. “Around The Bend” features magnificent finger-picking and a vocal that comes as close as anything he sings to true soulfulness. “Jelly Roll” is a fine, funky take of a song by John Martyn. “Richmond” is truly beautiful, mixing light acoustic picking with subtle accompaniment. “India” is an acoustic/electric raga that Michael Bloomfield would be proud of, and a track that owes some debt to Mountain’s “For My Friend” in its alternation of gentility and ferocity. It is these acoustic tracks that add flavor and texture to the album and that elevate it to a higher level. There are some great electric workouts, like “Ballpeen Hammer”, “Another Kind Of Love”, and the blistering “Black Night” and the balance of the album is smartly chosen songs played with lots of fire. Bonamassa may be lacking in some authenticity, but so were the majority of British bluesers that he calls his influences. But for those (like me) who complain that nobody’s making music like Cream, Blodwyn Pig, Led Zeppelin, or Free anymore…well, Joe Bonamassa is proof that such music still exists.
    Grade: B+
  • Other Worlds (EP)Screaming Trees. Even the best bands have to start somewhere. Screaming Trees started in 1985 with this 6-track EP, which is very much a product of the times. Far from the dark, swirly, guitar-heavy crush of their later albums, Other Worlds is nearly a tribute to Chronic Town-era R.E.M. It’s practically a parallel universe version of the début EP from Athens’s finest, right down to the herky-jerky rhythms that border on danceable, high vocals (good Lord, is that really Mark Lanegan singing?), and subtle lyrical psychedelicisms. Other Worlds doesn’t hold up as well as Chronic Town, mainly because R.E.M. emerged as a mature band with a distinct sound while Screaming Trees are still searching for their sound at this point. But “The Turning” (a different version of which would show up on their début LP, Clairvoyance, in 1986) and “Now Your Mind Is Next To Mine” (great title, that) are excellent examples of the early Trees sound, while “Like I Said”, “Pictures In My Mind”, and “Other Worlds” are very good. Only “Barriers” is lackluster. Screaming Trees did some great work later in their career, but this is the sound of a young band having fun and trying to figure out their path. Very good on the merits, but hardly essential listening.
    Grade: B
  • Live On Ten LegsPearl Jam. I have never seen Pearl Jam in concert, though I’ve seen all the films, videos, etc. They are an astoundingly good live band, maybe the best since the prime of The Who. As players, they are some of the best in rock music today. Matt Chamberlin is a ferociously good drummer, and Mike McCready doesn’t get anywhere near the recognition he deserves as a guitar player. Add in Jeff Ament’s bass, Boom Gaspar’s keyboards, and Stone Gossard’s rhythm guitar and you’re talking about a level of musicianship that most bands would kill for. And then there’s Eddie Vedder who brings a raw level of excitement and passion to his performances that remind you of Roger Daltrey. Vedder is not the stadium showman, à la Mick Jagger, Robert Plant, or Freddie Mercury. It’s abundantly clear that Vedder’s idol is Daltrey, whose powerhouse vocals and intense, contained sense of impending violence was like a bonfire on the Who’s stages. Live on Ten Legs is the band’s second live album, not counting the dozens (hundreds?) of “official” bootlegs they released as tour souvenirs in a successful effort to beat bootleggers at their own game. This album is not as feral as 1998’s Live On Two Legs, but it’s close. It gathers highlights from their 2003-2010 tours, and takes pains not to overlap any songs with the earlier album. What that means is that some of their live showstoppers like “Even Flow”, “Black”, and “Do The Evolution” are not here. But it also means that “Alive”, “State Of Love And Trust”, “Rearviewmirror”, “Jeremy”, and “Yellow Ledbetter” finally get an official live release. There are also two cover songs: Joe Strummer’s “Arms Aloft” works perfectly since there is a lot of similarity between Strummer’s music and Pearl Jam’s. Less successful is an attempt at “Public Image” featuring Vedder trying his best to mimic John Lydon’s snotty vocal delivery. It’s not a bad attempt, but it doesn’t really work. Pearl Jam and Public Image, Ltd. are very different bands. Similarly, a lengthy jam on “Porch” serves only to sap the power from the song. There are other flaws: the version of “Yellow Ledbetter” is surprisingly ramshackle, and “Jeremy” suffers from overexposure…even the band sounds like they don’t really want to hear it. On the other end of the spectrum, “World Wide Suicide”, “Love and Trust”, “Alive”, “Animal”, and “Unthought Known” are amazing, surpassing the studio versions in almost every instance. Mike McCready really shines on “Nothing As It Seems”. There is also a great version of “I Am Mine”, one of the most tuneful Pearl Jam songs ever recorded, and a song that deserved to be a huge hit single, but was released at a time when Pearl Jam’s star was receding. The album is a notch below Live on Two Legs, but it is conclusive proof that Pearl Jam is still one of the most incendiary live acts in the world.
    Grade: A
  • After The Flood: Live From The Grand Forks Prom June 28, 1998Soul Asylum. The Minneapolis band doesn’t get enough credit. They were so much more than “Runaway Train.” They had the good fortune of sticking around long enough to come through the door that Nirvana opened, unlike their real peers (and betters) The Replacements and Husker Du. Fortunately for Soul Asylum, their writing and playing peaked just at the time when alternative rock was becoming mainstream, and their hard-edged melodies were suddenly radio-friendly. Sure the awful video for “Runaway Train” was built for heavy consciousness raising rotation on MTV, but they actually found a few kids from that video, so all sins are forgiven. Besides, it was a truly great song until MTV beat it into your head every hour on the hour. In 1998, a huge flood hit Grand Forks, ND, destroying much of the town. As the waters receded, area high schools had a collective prom in an Air Force hangar that had been used as a refugee center. The prom band was Soul Asylum, which is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard since my brother’s high school class pooled their prom money and instead staged a concert by Edgar Winter’s White Trash. If you know the studio albums, there’s not much on here that you haven’t already heard in versions that are equally good or even better. Soul Asylum has always had a reputation of being a great live band, and it’s abundantly clear that they’re having a good time here. The songs are tight, loud, and bursting with exuberance. What elevates the album are the cover songs. The opener is a ferocious version of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and the set closes with the all-time great prom song “To Sir, With Love” and a fantastic version of “Rhinestone Cowboy.” In between they work in a stellar version of “The Tracks of My Tears,” and a poignant “I Can See Clearly Now”. One can only imagine what the teachers and parents thought of their kids’ prom band covering Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” inserting the F-word into “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and declaring that “suits are a pain in the ass.” But it’s Soul Asylum, and you can take the Minneapolis guttersnipes out of the gutter, but you can’t take the gutter out of the guttersnipes. This is a really solid album, with great cover songs, and well-played, well-chosen originals. The only misstep is not going further back in their repertoire, at least to some of the great tracks from their Hang Time album, but that strikes me as likely a record company decision.
    Grade: B+