‘He left a heritage': Garth Hudson, Amy Helm, Steve Berlin and Jimmy Vivino on Levon Helm

Levon Helm, who died on April 19, 2012, continues to serve as a source of inspiration to those who knew him — principally through his recordings, both with and without the Band. Then, there were those who spent time with him personally — sidemen, collaborators and family.

They tell the story of a giving person, a music legend with his feet placed firmly on the ground, someone who thrived through good times and bad, all with an uncommon grace.

There’s Garth Hudson, with whom Helm made so many stirring songs as co-founders of the Band: “Levon was the one of the best storytellers I’ve ever heard in my life,” Garth Hudson tells us, in an exclusive SER Sitdown. “You could hate baseball, and by the time he got finished talking to you about it, you would love it.”

There are performers like Jimmy Vivino, Bob Margolin and Steve Berlin of Los Lobos, who had an opportunity over the years to perform in recording sessions and at barn-dance concerts (known as Midnight Rambles) at Helm’s bucolic Woodstock music space. Helm always struck a perfect balance between history and fun, effortlessly combining country, gospel, blues, rockabilly, Cajun and favorites from his Band repertoire. It was a homey as it was connective — with his history, with everyone’s.

Then there’s Amy Helm, the singing drummer’s daughter, protege and musical confidant. She might have been expected to have taken his passing, after a lengthy battle with cancer, the hardest of all. Yet, Amy Helm says: “It’s been a very positive time, actually.”

In the meantime, she’s helped spearhead efforts to keep the Levon Helm Studios as a musical centerpiece of her father’s legacy, a place where music still rings out. “I feel very positive about everything that’s happening right now, and I feel really honored to be in the position to try to carry on my father’s wishes and his legacy,” Amy Helm tells us. “Like he was to so many, he was really a musical hero of mine, obviously, as well. So, I am very inspired and grateful to be in the place I am.”

That helps ease the pain, at least in some small way, of Levon’s tragic passing — as does talking about everything he meant, both to them and to the broader world of music: “He left a heritage, for sure,” Hudson adds, “for all of us to carry on with what we are doing.”

For Jimmy Vivino, who included the touching “Song for Levon” on his most recent album 13 Live, Helm was “the voice of America” — someone who, in their conversations, “was like talking to history.” They performed together, first in the Burners and then into the 2000s as the Midnight Ramble Band. More recently, Vivino appeared alongside Hudson in a night celebrating the Band’s music.

“There was something about him,” Vivino says of Helm. “He always told me the story of Elvis [Presley] coming through playing on a flatbed truck in Helena [Arkansas], when he was a kid. That’s what made him want to get a set of drums, I think, when he saw [original Presley drummer] D.J. [Fontana] playing. You know, he was mostly a mandolin and guitar player. That’s why his rhythm was so unique. No one will ever be as natural a drummer and singer at the same time as Levon was. You couldn’t really separate it. He cut his tracks while playing. It’s the only way he could do it. God, I miss him. But he’s always with us.”

That includes the sessions for 13 Live, which was recorded for Blind Pig Records at Levon Helm Studios. “I can’t explain it to you,” Vivino tells us. “His presence was strongly felt all night long.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: John Simon, who served as both producer and musical collaborator, takes us inside the Band's first two albums, its 'Last Waltz' concert and the first post-Robbie Robertson comeback album.]

Helm’s passion for legacy music led him to a canny idea in 1975, when he oversaw a studio collaboration between Muddy Waters and a group of local talent in his barn-turned-studio. The Woodstock Album, a triumph of in-the-moment musicianship and swinging camaradarie, also featured guitarist Bob Margolin and keyboardist Pinetop Perkins from Waters’ regular working band, harpist Paul Butterfield, and Hudson from the Band.

“It was a thrill for me to work with Levon and Paul and Garth and get to know them a little bit,” Margolin says, “because they were and still are musical heroes to me. Nine years before that, I had been in a blues band in Boston that worshipped Paul Butterfield. When the Band came out with their albums and their Americana style of music in the middle of the more flighty psychedelia, they grounded and changed a lot of people. To play music with people like this — and of course Muddy and Pinetop, too — is a blessing I carry with me. The sessions were relaxed and friendly and fun and I think you can hear that in the music.”

Of course, this being the 1970s, it wasn’t all business: “There was a lot of rock star reefer around too,” Margolin adds, chuckling, “and I don’t remember much about the ends of the evenings.” Margolin joined Waters and Levon again on Thanksgiving of the next year, as part of Band’s Last Waltz concert.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Across the Great Divide is a weekly, song-by-song examination from Something Else! on the legacy of the Band, both together and as solo artists. Click here to see past entries.]

Hudson wasn’t just a participant in countless musical collaborations with Helm, he was also there when his long-time musical partner’s plans for the barn first began to take shape. “There’s no other venue like the Ramble,” Hudson tells us. “You’ll hear accounts to describe the place, but it’s more than words can say. Levon and I used to drive around the Woodstock area here, looking for property. This was before we built. We would be talking about the design, with the home studio in mind. It was pretty well set in his mind what his building would be, even back then.”

The Helm Studios, situated on 20 acres, are housed in a barn whose timbers are fastened with wooden pegs and bluestone from a local quarry. This idyllic country setting, which also features a large bass-filled lake, has welcomed performers across a staggering spectrum — from Keith Richards and Donald Fagen, from Booker T. and the MGs to Todd Rundgren, from Eric Clapton to My Morning Jacket.

“You might miss it, if you drive too fast — but it’s back there,” Hudson adds. “At that time, this was early 1970s when we were building, he already had the idea of the show that would be going on there. I know he had thought of TV cameras, so we could do video pieces of a group — or a concert. He had all of those concepts in place. And he just went through with it and really did an incredible thing.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: In a rangy talk, Garth Hudson and his collaborator and confidant Sister Maud Hudson further explore his earliest musical experiments as well as the founding of the Band.]

Amy Helm had the good fortune, at the turn of the 2000s, to participate in a stirring resurgence for Helm after his initial health problems — initially as a member of his band and then as a co-producer and key contributor on the Grammy-winning 2007 comeback album Dirt Farmer.

At first, she says, “playing with him was playing with someone who was mastering his instrument as a drummer, and rediscovering himself as a singer. It was hugely inspiring on every level, to be around someone in that part of their journey as a working musician. He had a really amazing resurgence of his whole musical life.”

Dirt Farmer, ultimately, was just the beginning, as Helm would win a second consecutive Grammy for 2009’s Electric Dirt — and then still another for 2011’s Ramble at the Ryman, though by then Helm had relapsed and then tragically lost his battle with cancer. Amy Helm took some solance in the belated accollades: “It was thrilling,” she tells us. “It was obviously very well deserved, and very inspiring as a musician to see someoone who is a hero to so many other musicians really get their deserved respect and place in the musical world.”

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: Jim Weider, who joined the Band as guitarist for its second-act reunion between 1985-1999, has been a fixture at Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles over the years.]

Levon’s Midnight Rambles quickly grew from their humble neighborhood-jam beginnings into a landing spot for huge stars — from Emmylou Harris to Elvis Costello, from Dr. John, to Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh — who’d made the pilgrimage to Woodstock for a chance to collaborate with a legend in his own time. On one of those occasions, in the spring of 2012, Los Lobos sat in — and that night, as amazing as it was emotional, ended up becoming the last time Helm ever performed. Steve Berlin, saxophonist and producer with Los Lobos, tells us he was unsure, given Helm’s health, that the show would even happen.

“It was something,” Berlin says. “We were supposed to have played with him the night before, and he cancelled at the last minute. We knew he wasn’t well. But he said the Barn show was still on the next day. When we got there, someone said: ‘Hey, Levon wants to talk to you guys.’ He had like a little bedroom in the back of the barn, more or less, and we walked in there — and he looked about as close to dying as I’ve ever seen anybody. It was just terrifying. He looked small and frail; he was shivering. He could barely talk. We just sort of shot the shit with him for a while, and then we walked out of there going: ‘There’s no way this guy is going to play a show tonight. There’s no way.’ He looked like he was basically about to go.”

But, Berlin adds, there was no stopping Levon Helm: “We did our set, and here comes Levon. He’s dressed to the hilt, and he sits down and plays his ass off. He was unbelievable. He just killed it that night. An unbelievably powerful performance, and then a week later, he left us.”

Nick DeRiso

Over a 30-year career, Nick DeRiso has also explored music for USA Today, All About Jazz, Ultimate Classic Rock and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the nation by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Contact him at nderiso@somethingelsereviews.com.