One item that has been on my bucket list for a while is to attend a Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm's Farm in Woodstock NY. I mention this today for two reasons. First, I missed going while Levon was alive and playing...something that I truly regret. Levon made it through alcohol and drug addiction and beat cancer once before succumbing in April 2012. Second, tonight the Grammy Awards are on television and a planned tribute to Levon Helm is on the schedule. I am extremely torn because as a rule I do not like award shows...watching the rich and famous pat each other on the back and talk about how talented everyone is can be boring and at times insulting to my intelligence. But the Grammys were different; musicians being recognized for their work isn't quite the same as actors going through the same paces. Not many bands or artists were looking to build brands or release a summer blockbuster aimed to cash in at just the right moment.
When I was a kid most bands and musicians released an album a year and went on tour to promote it. I remember spending $7.50 on my first concert ticket in 1977 and another $5 outside the Boston Garden for a T-shirt. Today the tickets are closer to $75 each (and up) and the shirts, which come in several "designer styles," range from $25-$50 more...oh how times have changed.
Suffice to say the Grammy Awards show, at least for me, has become a caricature of itself. The show started to believe its own hype and became disconnected from its roots. Many "musicians" today don't know how to play instruments--they don't even sing without the help of Auto-Tune...and lip-synching a live performance is considered OK because it is "entertainment." Yeah right; tell that to John Lee Hooker...
Once again I took a left turn and went down Tangent Avenue...time to get back on track. I have been listening to a lot of music today by The Band as well as some solo work from Levon Helm. One of my favorite tunes is "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and it is the song chosen for today's blog. This song stirs me every time I listen to it. One thing that stands out to me is Levon is not only the drummer, he sings lead as well. I am qualified to do neither--but I know enough to know that is no easy feat. I have listened to the original recording on The Band's second album as well as live recordings on two releases; "Before the Flood" and "Rock of Ages." But the rawest, most emotion-filled version has to be from "The Last Waltz."
Levon is a native of Arkansas and worked with Robbie Robertson on the lyrics. He went to great lengths to make sure the South was well represented in the song. Historical accuracy was important, and extensive research was done by both men to capture the facts and the feelings of the end of the Civil War...mission accomplished.
Ironically the last time Levon performed "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" was at the show recorded for "The Last Waltz." He refused to perform the song at any of his Midnight Rambles...perhaps too many painful memories...at least we have the raw emotion captured on film as well as vinyl. I chose the post below because it shows The Band pouring everything they have into the song, and you can see that night in May 1865 in Levon's face (does he ever open his eyes?). I watch this movie whenever I feel the "realness" of music slipping away...I have been watching it a lot more lately.
So tonight I will sit through the Grammy Awards waiting for the tribute to one of rock 'n' roll's greatest because it ain't like it used to be...now about that bucket list...