Rock legend Levon Helm (1941-2012) - the drummer and a lead singer for The Band - is batting 1,000 at the Grammys. Last month, when his "Ramble at the Ryman" won Best Americana Album, he made it three in a row - three nominations, three wins - following Grammy Awards for his two previous albums, "Dirt Farmer" (2007) and "Electric Dirt" (2009). Not bad for a 71-year-old survivor of throat cancer, who had once lost his voice completely.
Right up until his passing in April 2012, Levon Helm presided over what he called "midnight rambles" - concerts in his Woodstock, N.Y. barn, where he was surrounded by musical friends and family, including his daughter, singer Amy Helm. His voice may be raspy, but his energetic drumming and high-beam smile could warm the coldest winter night. Following rousing versions of "The Weight" and "Ophelia," Helm invited Marco Werman into his house for after midnight conversation, which would turn out to be one of his last interviews.
I pulled into Nazareth was feelin' about half past dead
Just need to find a place where I can lay my head
It's one of the most famous opening lines to any rock song of the past fifty years, and it was sung originally by drummer Levon Helm in a clear, strong tenor voice with an unmistakable Arkansas twang. Since it’s release in 1968, "The Weight" has become an essential part of the American songbook.
This version - filmed for Quick Hits at a February 4, 2012 'midnight ramble' concert in Levon's Woodstock, N.Y. barn is 'The Weight' at its most communal. A song in which everyone shares the burden and the joy.
Levon's spirit hovers over the whole song but he turns over the opening vocals to Woody Platt, a smooth, handsome country singer from North Carolina, whose group, the Steep Canyon Rangers, shares the stage with the Levon Helm Band. Larry Campbell, a Jackson Browne look-alike who leads Levon's outfit, joins in, followed by Brian Mitchell singing about 'crazy Chester' (Rick Danko's role in the original). Teresa Williams (Campbell's wife) and Amy Helm (Levon's daughter) deliver some heartfelt harmonies.
Look closely and you'll spot Donal Fagen of Steely Dan on piano.
Written by Robbie Robertson, "The Weight" is a masterpiece of Biblical allusions, enigmatic lines and iconic characters. But the heart of the song has always been Levon Helm, who emerged from the southern cotton fields to play with Bob Dylan and become the only American in a group that re-introduced America to its musical roots.
Levon Helm's website
Midnight Ramble band members
Performing "The Weight" at the Midnight Ramble, Feb. 4, 2012
Woody Platt - Guitar, Vocals
Graham Sharp - Vocals
Mike Guggino - Mandolin, Vocals
Nicky Sanders - Violin
Charles R. Humphrey - Vocals, Bass
Levon Helm - Drums, Mandolin, Vocals
Larry Campbell - Guitar, fiddle, mandolin, Vocals
Clark Gayton - Trombone
Jay Collins - Sax
Steven Bernstein - Trumpet
Erik Lawrence - Sax
Howard Johnson - Tuba, Baritone Sax
Brian Mitchell - Keyboards, Piano, B-3, Accordion, Harmonica, Vocals
Amy Helm - Mandolin, Vocals
Teresa Williams - Guitar, Vocals
Jim Weider - Guitar, Vocals
Byron Isaacs - Bass, Vocals
Randy Ciarlante - Drums, Vocals
Donald Fagen - Keyboard, Vocals