Turns out Levon Helm had one more inspiring moment to give. The former singer and drummer of the Band helped facilitate a new all-star recording commemorating 50 years of Amnesty International in the time before cancer took his life.
Nearly 50 artists contributed to this project, including Kris Kristofferson, Warren Haynes, Rosanne Cash, Donald Fagen, Shawn Mullins, Taj Mahal and Carly Simon, among others. Larry Campbell produced the track, which was principally recorded at Helm’s home studio in Woodstock, N.Y., and features his vocals and percussion. Preview the track, and order it below.
The newly christened Art for Amnesty band — featuring Kristofferson, Mullins, Campbell, Jonny Lang and others, will perfor, “Toast to Freedom” on this evening’s (Thursday, May 3, 2012) episode of the Tonight Show with Jay Leno on NBC.
Helm, 71, sang on a number of the Band’s most recognizable songs, including “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up On Cripple Creek.” He was diagnosed with throat cancer in the late 1990s, a condition that originally led doctors to advise a radical laryngectomy. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer instead underwent a difficult series of radiation treatments. The tumor was successfully removed, but Helm’s vocal cords were damaged. He spent years working to regain the tenor voice that helped define the Band, eventually releasing a trio of Grammy award-winning solo albums in the 2000s — and regularly holding house concerts in New York state’s Ulster County dubbed “The Midnight Ramble” until his cancer returned. Helm died last month.
Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Levon Helm. Click through the titles for complete reviews …
LEVON HELM – RAMBLE AT THE RYMAN (2011): We’re reminded again here that Levon Helm was the loamy voiced, rail-jumping rhythmic center point of the Band, its yearning storyteller and gritty soul. Their records were drawn from continuity, bringing in dizzyingly diverse, age-old influences and performed in a chorus as if by brothers. That has always made a treasure hunt out of selecting any individual triumph on their old records. Not here, as this Ramble becomes a showcase for Helm. It’s also an important reminder: The Band’s principal songwriting credits may have gone to Robbie Robertson, but they were then — and are here, again — often completely inhabited by Helm’s carnal Arkansas drawl.
LEVON HELM – ELECTRIC DIRT (2009): Nothing drove old Levon Helm down. Not the messy dissolution of his group, The Band; the perhaps inevitable subsequent financial ruin; a terrifying bout with throat cancer; a pair of shatteringly tragic deaths within his inner circle; or a yawning quarter century span between solo records that made him all but obscure in modern musical circles. There is, of course, a dark and deep sense of loss — this candid accounting of, and quiet mourning for, the old times, the old ways, the old friends that fans of some of The Band’s best-known Helm-sung tunes (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight,” and “Up on Cripple Creek”) will recognize. But Helm sings with the bone-deep confidence of someone who has eyeballed our biggest fears and lived to tell the tale.
LEVON HELM – DIRT FARMER (2007): His earthy, Arkansas drawl epitomized the roots-minded rock combo The Band just as much as Robbie Robertson’s evocative compositions on American folklore. And now he’s back with a rare studio album that makes The Band sound like a sleek, electronica dance music. There’s not a trace of a plugged-in instrument anywhere and amongst songs by Steve Earle and J.B. Lenoir are songs that aren’t even copyrighted anymore. But Helm’s steady drumming and blessedly rural warble remains. That should be plenty good enough for any fan of The Band.