Levon Helm, drummer for the Band and a solo artist, died Thursday afternoon after a long battle with cancer, his friend and bandmate Larry Campbell told the Hudson Valley newspaper the Times Herald-Record. Helm was 71.
The singer has canceled two scheduled performances in Northampton in recent months, including one that had been slated for Friday, April 20. The reason why became clear earlier this week, when Helm’s family revealed he was in the final stages of cancer, with which he was first diagnosed in the late ’90s.
A letter posted on the front page of his website read:
Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.
Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration… he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage…
We appreciate all the love and support and concern.
From his daughter Amy, and wife Sandy
After graduating from high school in the late 1950s, Helm, 71, an Arkansas native, backed Canadian singer Ronnie Hawkins in a band that came to include Robbie Robertson, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. In 1963, they split from Hawkins and formed what became the Band, one of the most essential groups of the late ’60s.
The original incarnation of the Band came to an end in 1976 with a concert documented in the 1978 movie and soundtrack album “The Last Waltz,” though Helm participated in the group’s revival in the ’90s. He also released a considerable assortment of solo albums over the years, including the Grammy-winning releases “Dirt Farmer” in 2007 (reviewed here) and “Electric Dirt” in 2009; and held “Rambles” in the barn on his property in upstate New York, which featured high-profile guest musicians spanning a wide swath of music, including Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Hubert Sumlin, Phil Lesh and Norah Jones.
Helm also appeared in a dozen movies, with roles in “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Right Stuff” and “Feeling Minnesota,” among others.
I only managed to see him perform once, last summer at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival, where his set was like a guided tour of American folk, country and blues music, and hearing him and his band (and Wilco) close their set with “I Shall Be Released” and “The Weight” was perfect, and deeply moving.