Levon Helm wasn’t a flashy player, merely a perfect one. The best musicians often give the impression that they make music conform to their own rules rather than the other way around, bending it to their will and converting the counterintuitive into the suddenly obvious. Watch this incredible performance of Van Morrison’s “Caravan” and pay attention to what happens at around 0:17: The Band start the song just a bit too fast, and three bars in Levon slows the entire thing down, in the blink of an eye, like an expert jockey atop a world-class thoroughbred. By conventional rule, spontaneously slowing down or speeding up a song is a cliché of bad music-making, but here it works. And of course the tempo he slows it to is exquisitely, achingly right.
It wasn’t all mysticism, of course. He was a technically monstrous player of unsurpassed versatility, one who could turn challenging music into something that sounded effortless. Other great bands have played difficult material, but on Steely Dan records the music sounds hard, wearing complexity on its sleeve with a sort of punk defiance. The Band’s “Jawbone” goes through more meters than Con Edison but sounds utterly natural: The Carter Family at a cookout with mid-’60s Miles Davis, everyone getting along, Levon working the grill.
He could sing a little, too. For all of his prowess at the drums, most of the world will remember Levon Helm as the voice of “Ophelia,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The Band boasted an embarrassment of vocal riches, and while Levon lacked the extraordinary expressive range of Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, his may have been the most indelible sound of the three. Listening to that worn and cozy voice was like being told a story around a campfire, after the humidity has broken and the mosquitoes have gone to sleep. Come upon “The Weight” on the radio at the right moment, and the entire world stands still.