Americana Night with Amy Helm
The Band, of all bands, was one without a single leader, but sometimes people would get the notion that one member or other was more in charge than the others.
“I thought Rick Danko was the leader of The Band, and I pretty much thought my dad played drums for Rick Danko’s band,” Amy Helm, daughter of late Band drummer and singer Levon Helm, told the Enterprise in a recent phone interview.
Bear in mind that Amy was not yet 6 years old in 1976 when The Band staged “The Last Waltz,” its last concert with the original lineup.
“Because ‘Stage Fright’ was my favorite song, the only one I really cared to hear,” Amy said. “I would always ask to leave whatever cool kids’ room they had at whatever venue we were at so that I could go see ‘Stage Fright.’ That was my jam.”
Amy has been onstage, rather than backstage, for many years now. She has a powerful singing voice and also plays piano, mandolin and drums. She’s a founding member of the roots group Ollabelle, she still plays with the Midnight Ramble Band and the Dirt Farmer Band – both linked to her father – and she plans to release her first solo album this fall.
Her solo-act group will join her in Lake Placid Tuesday evening, when she’ll perform as part of the Songs at Mirror Lake free concert series at Mid’s Park downtown. She said to expect a mix of blues, gospel and rock ‘n’ roll.
Meanwhile, in interviews, reporters can’t help but ask about her dad.
Mark Lavon “Levon” Helm grew up on a farm in Chicken Scratch, Ark., where he fell in love with both white and black folks’ music. Fellow Arkansas rocker Ronnie Hawkins hired him as a drummer and took him to Canada, hiring Canadians Danko, Richard Manuel, Robbie Robertson and Garth Hudson into what was then the Hawks. They severed from Hawkins in 1964 and became Levon and the Hawks until Bob Dylan hired them as his road band in 1965. When Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident, he and the group holed up in a house in Woodstock for a rush of creativity that produced “The Basement Tapes” (released years later) and prompted The Band’s first album, “Music from Big Pink.”
The Band was, as many know, one of the most popular and critically acclaimed rock groups of the late ’60s and ’70s. Levon was its drummer (although he played other instruments, too) and one of three singers, along with Danko and Manuel.
Levon settled in Woodstock, and Amy grew up there as well as in New York City.
“I spent a lot of time with him in studio, and he took me on the road a lot, and I loved being with him, and it was just a way of life that I knew,” she said.
“My father was a real working man’s musician. When I was about 5 or 6, he had a party at his house when he finished his ‘RCO All-Stars’ record (1977). He had a huge party, and all of the kids of the various musicians that were playing with RCO put together a kids’ band, and we were gonna play at the party. (She was to sing.) It was our big gig. And he sat down with all of us, and he said, ‘Alright now, guys … you’re going to make two grand for this gig,’ and our eyes got as wide as saucers because we had never even heard of that much money. We were all in kindergarten at the time, or whatever age we were. And then he sat down and he said, ‘Now this much is going to have to go to the guy who’s gonna run the front-of-house sound, and this much is gonna have to go to your guitar tech, and this much is gonna have to go to your travel to the gig, and this much is gonna have to go-‘ And he went through a list of expenses, and our money got knocked down to about 150 bucks, which was still just fine with us.
“But that’s what I mean: He kind of instilled that in me at a very young age. Playing music was just about doing it because you loved it, and then trying to honor that by doing it as much as you could and trying to get as good at it as you could and trying to stay centered and really playing in an honoring way of the music and the opportunity to play music. I don’t think I understood the fame thing till I was older.”
Robertson had planned “The Last Waltz” to be The Band’s retirement, but the others regrouped in the 1980s and kept it going through Manuel’s death in 1986 until Danko’s death in 1999.
Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998. After he survived it, Amy helped him start his unique Midnight Rambles concert series at his barn in Woodstock. She also played in the Rambles’ house band, often alongside famous guests.
“He had always envisioned having concerts at that barn since he built it,” Amy said. “So it was just kind of getting his dream up and running, and I was happy to be part of helping in that.”
Amy also co-produced her father’s comeback album, “Dirt Farmer,” and was heavily involved with the follow-up, “Electric Dirt.” Both won Grammys.
Levon died of cancer in 2012.
Upstate New Yorkers often think of The Band as their own, even though none of the members was from here originally. Amy said the feeling was mutual from her father’s standpoint.
“I think he absolutely loved it here and felt embraced by the community and embraced them back,” she said. “He just landed here, and it felt right to him here, and he found his place.”