When Elton John takes the stage with Mumford & Sons at the Grammys on Sunday night, he’ll be celebrating the memory of an old friend and reminding Americans of the great talent lost when Levon Helm died. Helm, drummer and singer for The Band, passed away in April last year and will be honored during the music awards ceremony Sunday night.
Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes, Mavis Staples, T. Bone Burnett and Zac Brown will join John and the Mumfords in performing “The Weight” and “Cripple Creek,” two of The Band’s best-known songs.
Helm died at 71 in 2012 from complications of throat cancer. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994 after decades as the “backbone” of The Band, which was known almost as much for its members contentious relationships as for the folksy music they created.
“As a member of the one of the most influential rock and roll groups, The Band, Levon Helm produced music that was as much timeless as it was timely,” said a statement from the Hall of Fame after his death. “In the late 1960s and early 1970s when the country was divided, The Band still projected a sense of unity and brought generations of fans together from all over the world.”
Helm got his start in music with The Hawks, a group that became famous for its live shows and eventually signed on as Bob Dylan’s backing band during his 1965-1966 tour. The Band, as the group was eventually renamed, were along for Dylan’s first electric tour, when audiences around the world would jeer when he put away the acoustic guitar that made him famous.
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Soon after recording “The Basement Tapes” bootleg with Dylan in rural upstate New York as he recovered from a motorcycle accident, The Band released “Music From Big Pink.” That and “The Band,” the album that followed, earned the group raves from critics. Time magazine called them “the new sound of country,” according to CNN.
But drugs and ego soon took over, and The Band’s last concert would be immortalized in Martin Scorcese’s 1978 film “The Last Waltz,” considered one of the greatest rock documentaries ever.
That influence has lasted through the decades. For proof, look no further than Brittany Howard’s Alabama Shakes, who have been nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy. Many of the alt-country musicians who headline music festivals today trace their influence back to The Band, and Helm’s whiskey-soaked Southern voice.
"You've got a lot of British people up there playing American music, because that's what we love,” Elton John said of Sunday night’s tribute, which will be dedicated to the “teachers and students of Sandy Hook Elementary School, whose songs ended too soon.”
Ken Ehrlich, producer of the Grammy Awards, told the Associated Press The Band’s message is as relevant today as it was during their heyday in the early 1970s.
“Generationally it's very mixed, and genre-wise it's certainly mixed, and ... that's what (Helm) was all about," Ehrlich said. "He was about old and young, country and pop. He was this incredibly eclectic artist."