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Remembering Levon Helm: The rock legend's 5 greatest performances
After the influential lead singer and drummer for The Band dies Thursday at age 71, critics fondly recall his most searing concerts
 
Levon Helm in 2010: The legendary drummer and lead singer of The Band died Thursday after a long battle with throat cancer.
Levon Helm in 2010: The legendary drummer and lead singer of The Band died Thursday after a long battle with throat cancer.
Adam McCullough ./Retna Ltd./Corbis

Levon Helm, a founding member of the groundbreaking rock and roll group The Band, died Thursday at age 71 after a long battle with throat cancer. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member was the ultimate rarity, says Jon Friedman at The Wall Street Journal: A drummer who kept time while singing lead. On hits like "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," Helm "epitomized southern rock with his unmistakable vocals." The Band first gained notoriety when Bob Dylan invited the group to Woodstock; not long after, they recorded the landmark folk rock album Basement Tapes. Their farewell concert in 1976 was immortalized in Martin Scorsese's seminal documentary The Last Waltz. Here, five of Helm's finest performances remembered:

1. "The Weight" (1976)
The Band's farewell concert, filmed for The Last Waltz, included Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Neil Young, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan, in what's likely "the greatest lineup of musical talent ever assembled in one place," says Nate Rawlings at TIME. Yet it was Helm's "raw power" that shined the most. The film also included perhaps the ultimate rendition of The Band's hit "The Weight," in which Mavis Staples joined Helm on vocals. The Last Waltz was, thanks to Helm's "out-of-control, emotional, transcendent performance," a game-changing documentary — a "raw, intimate, and wonderfully loud slice of zeitgeist," says Matt Patches at Hollywood.

 

2. "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" (1976)
Though The Band is best known for its "homespun take on American roots music," says David Browne at Rolling Stone, Helm was the only true southerner — his bandmates all hailed from Canada. Helm's roots bleed through his performance of "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" in The Last Waltzsays Rawlings. He "wears the pain and suffering of ordinary people" who lived in the South during the Civil War; you can see it "from the song's beginning until the final strike of his drum."

 

3. "Up on Cripple Creek" (1989)
Watching Helm drum "was like seeing the Rockies or the Grand Canyon," says Will Hermes at NPR. On percussion, he had "the kind of flesh-and-blood timekeeping" that will likely never be matched. And listening to his lyrics felt like driving "down a dirt road, deep into the woods of American history." In the '80s and '90s, Helm and some members of The Band toured with Ringo Starr's All-Star Band, which included Richard Marx, Billy Preston, and Dr. John. In this rendition of "Up on Cripple Creek," filmed in 1989, says Lindsay Eanet at Blackbook, "Helm just looks like he's having the time of his life."

 

4. "Atlantic City" (1994)
Helm reunited with original The Band members Rich Danko and Garth Hudson in the '90s. The highlight of the concert, says Ben Greeman at The New Yorker, was their cover of "Atlantic City," Bruce Springsteen's "anthem about broken dreams." It's a "really beautiful, bluegrass-tinged" take on the Boss's classic, says Eanet.



5. "Ophelia" (2012)
After being diagnosed with throat cancer in the late '90s, Helm began holding intimate concerts at the barn-turned-recording-studio connected to his home in Woodstock in order to pay his medical bills. The "Midnight Ramble," as the gatherings came to be known, attracted the likes of Elvis Costello, Natalie Merchant, and the Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh, who would sometimes jam with Helm. "He also asked guests to bring drinks and a dish, making each show a potluck feast," says Hermes. It was "one of the most remarkable second acts in rock history. Above is a rendition of "Ophelia" he played at a February 2012 Midnight Ramble. "His voice may be raspy," says Sound Tracks. "But his energetic drumming and high-beam smile can warm the coldest winter night."

 

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