From left, Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson and Robbie Robertson of the Band in Woodstock, N.Y. Credit: Elliott Landy and NY Times
Yesterday in Manhattan (April 19), the great American drummer Levon Helm succumbed to a long battle with throat cancer; a struggle through which he lost his voice and fought to regain it, never giving up performing and his leadership role within the music world.
Helm was “the American linchpin of the otherwise Canadian group that became Bob Dylan’s backup band and then the Band.” reads his heartfelt obituary in the New York Times. Beyond his role as singer and drummer in The Band, Helm was of vital importance to championing the Americana music tradition. His home and recording studio in Woodstock was a down-home mecca, at which his Midnight Rambles would bring together many musical greats of different generations to share in the joy of our great musical tradition.
His presence will be greatly missed.
Its Friday! I’ll leave you with this gem of a vintage performance clip featuring Lester Flatt singing “My Little Cabin Home on the Hill” with Bill Monroe.
The Punch Brothers are a band that plays bluegrass instruments; their sound, however, has a chamber ensemble affinity and their music pushes the historical boundaries of their instruments; new grass with a Stop-and-Listen then Repeat kind of effect. Alec Wilkinson in the New Yorker recently described the Brothers as a “postmodern, punk-inflected, Bach-Stravinsky-Coltrane-influenced string band.” And the sound of their new album Who’s Feeling Young Now? is indeed a refreshed, experimental sound–turn up the stereo and contemplate a listening experience that unfolds like a meditation or prayer tempered with an existentialist sentiment.
We’re pretty big fans of Bluegrass and Americana in our house, listening to the old and the contemporary and seeking out live performances and festivals whenever possible. New Grass often means improvised in a jam-band kind of a way, and I really appreciate the more jazz-improv sound that comes out of this band as a more thought provoking experimental alternative.
Here’s a couple examples of their earlier songs that have a more traditional bluegrass feel:
Who’s Feeling Young Now? was released last month to considerable critical acclaim. The album has an overall conceptual cohesiveness as well as a unity of sound within the songs without dampening the virtuosity of each musician and really showcases how the individual band members have come together to create a unique sound-philosophy. Every time I listen to it, I like it a bit more. There’s something decidedly less bluegrass about it, but also somehow more wild, atonal, meditative, loose. In other words, it approaches that cabin-state-of-mind I’m looking for.
Further exemplifying their versatility and virtuosity, they delve into the classical–pushing the limits of their Bill Monroe-style “Original Bluegrass Band” (mandolin, fiddle, upright bass, banjo, and guitar). There’s a reason why they’ve been getting so much attention of late.