February 13, 2008
They tried to make Levon Helm go to the Grammy Awards, but he said no, no, no.
No surprise there. You could see this coming as far back as the mid ’80s just by his bearing when he strode up the back stairs to the stage area at the old Park West amphitheater. There was something in the way he carried himself that spoke to both history and integrity.
So when it was announced by the Recording Academy earlier this year that his old outfit, "The Band," had been tapped to receive a lifetime achievement award, those longtime fans aware of that history couldn’t really picture him sitting comfortably alongside ex-bandmate Robbie Robertson at the ceremony.
If there was to be a gig as part of the package, if the three surviving members were to perform their anthems together once again (with the necessary augmentation, of course), well, that would make all the difference. Levon would no doubt find himself pulling into Nazareth one more time.
But if there would be no performance slot, if it was all about joining Robbie’s entourage as he once again took all the bows for what was, according to most accounts, a collaborative body of work, well, Levon would just as soon stay home in Woodstock and perform with his band in his barn for a couple of hundred aficionados who knew what was truly special about that music and that time.
It isn’t that Levon never acknowledged Robbie’s extraordinary lyrical sensibilities. He took pains to point them out both in a long-ago conversation backstage at Park West and, a decade later, in his autobiography, "This Wheel’s on Fire." It’s just that for the most part the songs arrived raw and were tempered by group therapy.
Recommended Stories For You
Then there were the upside-downside issues of "The Last Waltz," a Robertson-Martin Scorsese production (they shared digs at the time), out of which came some timeless recorded music and film, but also the virtual end of The Band as a touring unit from which the rest of the group could draw ongoing sustenance.
For the most part, song royalties went to Robbie. This situation would stick in their craw over years that saw the ever-so-soulful Richard Manuel string himself up and the cooler-than-most Rick Danko pass on in his sleep.
Then there was the throat cancer brought on by a lifetime of smoking that reduced Helm’s character-rich singing voice to little more than a rumor of its former self. It would return with similar grit, if not tone, however. Good though!
So it was Robbie and the legendary keyboardist Garth Hudson who showed up in person to receive the Recording Academy award for a most-magnificent 20th-century oeuvre one truly worthy of a lifetime achievement award. Personalities aside, during the quite heady times in which it concocted musical brilliance, The Band was as good as it got.
A few years back, during a Sundance now-lost-to-time, it was Garth’s turn to share some thoughts on the matter. In town for a gig at the Star Bar with "Sneaky Pete" Kleinow and the rest of the newly formed "Burrito Deluxe" band, Hudson chose his words carefully, using them as a cutting horse to nudge the discussion along.
There was an obvious sense that he wasn’t about telling tales out of school, of course, but his eyes had a mischievous way of completing thoughts his voice left dangling. He had a similar take back in the day at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica while waiting for Thumbs Carlisle to strut his stuff.
Another reason some thought Levon might attend the awards had to do with his most recent release, "Dirt Farmer," being nominated in the "traditional folk album" category. The songs, written from a landscape in which mules and tractors would stop and quizzically stare at each, were derived from a youth spent coming of age in rural Arkansas.
And, wouldn’t you know it, he won! You couldn’t say "he took home the Grammy," however, because, as mentioned previously, he wasn’t there. He was back home pickin’ and grinnin’ in his barn for a mess of friends and fans as stubborn as he.
He refers to these gatherings as "Midnight Rambles," but renamed Sunday’s show a "Midnight Gramble" in honor of those left-coast award folk. It looks like the entity formerly known as the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences will now have two statuettes to deliver up Woodstock way.
Although missing many of the awards due to clicking back and forth between the Grammy show and the BAFTAs on BBC, I did stumble upon a few oases in that vast desert of boredom. Actually, the opening-number duet between Alicia Keys and some old footage of Frank Sinatra crooning his saloon-singer shtick on "Learning the Blues" might well be the best thing I’ve ever seen on the tube including Nixon’s resignation.
Other highlights and winners: Herbie Hancock paying tribute to Miles Davis and John Coltrane when accepting the "Album of the Year" award, the Willie Nelson & Ray Price and J. J. Cale & Eric Clapton collaborations, Terrence Blanchard, Paquito D’Rivera, Steve Earle, Soweto Gospel Choir, and, in the "Recording Package" category, "Bright Eyes" (Conor Oberst) for "Cassadaga."
One of the coolest things to happen recording-wise this past year was the digital adaptation and release of a "wire recording" of a 1949 Woody Guthrie concert at a YMCA in Newark. "The Live Wire" won the Grammy for "Historical Album." Way to go, Woody! Boy, would you have some material to draw from today.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.