Levon Helm and Larry Campbell: Building A Band
Photo by Ahron Foster
I was lucky enough to see Levon Helm perform numerous times over the years in all sorts of settings but my mind consistently drifts to the first time I saw him play live whenever I hear his name. When I was in high school in the ‘90s, I went to see the Counting Crows play SPAC, and the Wallflowers opened the night on one of their first tours. At the end of their set and without much fanfare, Jakob Dylan brought out Levon Helm to sing and play mandolin on a few songs, one of the few times The Band’s eternal spirit played with someone with the last name Dylan in his later years. This was before Levon had been diagnosed with cancer and certainly before he launched one of the most successful comebacks in recent rock history, so I didn’t know rarely appreciate who he was—he just seemed to come down from the mountain and change the whole feel of the night, which feels like the perfect way to experience him for the first time.
Shortly after that show, I really started to dig into The Band’s music and discovered just how important Levon was not only to the group but rock history in general. He was a true witness to rock history—one of the few people who was around when folk went electric and still felt just as relevant when jam went indie. Since his passing a month ago, his final eight years have justifiably been called the most successful encore in rock and roll history, but I’m still glad I was able to see Levon at least once before my generation helped bring him back into the spotlight because, in a way, he thought of himself as a sideman up until the very end.
It was a theme he consistently returned to when I interviewed him in the spring of 2009 for a Relix feature tied to his final studio album, Electric Dirt. We sat for 40-minutes after a Midnight Ramble in his modest, surprisingly suburban looking kitchen, which was located right behind his barn performance space and functioned as something of a makeshift greenroom. Larry Campbell, one of his closest collaborators in recent years and another Bob Dylan alum, sat with him throughout our conversation. As he did with the Ramble Band onstage and the studio he was mainly there for support, adding a line here or there and polishing Helm’s thoughts from time to time.
Despite being something of a promotional interview for his then forthcoming solo record, Levon seemed just as happy to plug the members of his band and their individual projects as he did talking about his new album—which is extremely rare for a musician who has seen his career hit rock bottom and has only recently received his long overdue recognition. His voice was horse from a long night of singing—and many more years of living—but he still perked up when we mentioned his daughter Amy or any of his recent collaborations. He touched briefly on his time with Dylan, The Band’s Americana roots and his idol Ray Charles, but his he remained firmly focused on the future.
At the time it seemed strange but in retrospect the point of the entire final act of his career was to create a true musicians’ band that could function without a leader and keep his spirit alive after he was gone. “We’re rhythm section guys,” Helm casually said a one point in the interview, referring more to the stacked resumes the members of his Ramble on the Road band carry than to his own iconic Band. But then again, that’s the common denominator that brought The Band together in the first place.
In celebration of what would have been Levon’s 72nd birthday on May 26, we decided to publish an extended portion of that conversation, most of which has never appeared before. Perhaps the most fitting tribute to their namesake if not leader, the Levon Helm Band will also play their first show since his passing on Saturday night. As he once sang in “Arcadian Driftwood,” “What a way to ride, oh, what a way to go.”
Before we start talking about your new album Electric Dirt, I wanted to touch on your studio. I watched tonight’s show from the balcony and got a sense of the room’s space. At the end of the show, when [opener] The Rosedale Heights School of the Arts Band joined you, musicians were spilling out of every corner—they seemed to fill the entire area, almost as if they were huddling in a living room. It has the rustic charm of a barn but also uses the space to really wrap around the music.
Levon: Yeah, the room does lend itself to that. Henry Glover, our mentor from way back, used to say that the room was sympathetic to a B flat. It was built like a big guitar. It’s built with Hemlock timbers and a big church beam right down the middle, like a big 16 × 18 timber. And then we got 4 × 12 adjusters coming across two-feet in the center. So it’s strung out just like a big guitar.
You’ve lived here for years and recorded here with increased regularity. How has the space evolved?
Levon: We got heat in it in ‘73. It burned in ‘89 and we rebuilt it in ‘90. We’ve been working on it since then. It sounds better. We made some improvements when we had to rebuild it. We made the cupola a little bit bigger. That’s the secret to the sound. All the extra sound can go up there and bleed out into the night and not come back into somebody’s microphone. That plus we made all the end walls out of stone. I think we got the right combination of stone and wood. And there’s no nails—no wood pegs, no metal holding anything, knee-bracing or anything like that.
That’s one silver lining of the fire, you were able to rebuild the studio the way it should sound.
Levon: Right, there’s no white noise.
Larry: Some of this is new right now: the balcony and where the soundboard is. It just got put in.
Levon: A month ago, two months ago.
Larry: Yeah, some of the boards upstairs are new, as well.
Levon: We still got a couple more things to do, but it sounded pretty good. We bought some extra equipment here a little while back, got some better microphones and stuff. We don’t have to borrow so much from other people.
I just watched the Electric Dirt promo video you recorded and one thing that really struck me is when you said that “there’s a level of comfort in the studio and the Rambles” and that rubbed off on the record. Can you elaborate on that point a bit?
Larry: Yeah, and on this [album] we used the horns. We didn’t on the first one. A bunch of those tunes are more like what we’ve been doing [at the Midnight Rambles]. This has been evolving for a couple of years. When you play together for that long everything starts to gel. It’s just a natural thing. When we did the Dirt Farmer record, that was just one side of what Levon’s thing is. And at that time the full band wasn’t fully ready to be represented as something that has its own voice. I think we’ve gotten there now.
Levon: We built a band. And that’s kinda what it is [now]. Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt are just the two that we’ve been able to come out of the group with. But [we have a lot more albums in reality] counting Larry and Theresa’s albums and Amy’s doing one…Little Sammy as soon as he gets back on his feet and Jimmy Vivino is too—his voice is sounding better than ever. So this band ought to give birth to half a dozen real good records by all the different members. And when we come together as a band, the thing is big enough that everyone can bring their side project in and there’s room for it. Everybody else is here to help—they’re not so busy, they can help each other. It’s really been a lot of fun.