A group of Americana music’s biggest stars (and Elton John) just paid tribute to Levon Helm, the Band’s drummer and vocalist who passed away last April. The group — which included John, folk rockers and “Album of the Year” Grammy winners tonight Mumford & Sons, roots rocker T Bone Burnett, R&B icon Mavis Staples, country artist and Grammy winner Zac Brown and Brittany Howard of southern rockers Alabama Shakes — performed the classic, rollicking Band tune “The Weight,” layering their voices, one on top of the other, in the song’s stirring chorus.
The tribute followed a lengthy montage of musicians who died over the past year, including Dave Brubeck, Donna Summer, Adam Yauch and others, which ended with Helm. The 11-member ensemble played a rousing rendition of the song, with each of the members playing off one another as photos of those memorialized flickered behind them on the wall. As it began, Elton John, who was wearing blue-framed glasses with purple lenses and a sparkly blue shirt, told the audience, “As we commemorate the passing of these great men who gave us this great music we also remember the teachers and students of Sandy Hook Elementary School, whose songs ended unfortunately too soon.” From there, it was an uplifting scene.
The shaggy-looking Brown, whose sticker-laden acoustic guitar looked as unwieldy as his gnarly beard, took the first verse, but was upstaged when Staples took to the forefront during the chorus, pointing at herself when singing the line, “Put the load right on me!” The animated soul songstress took the second verse and gesticulated the lyrics, letting loose an amazing yelp after her verse. The members of Mumford & Sons took the next verse, with the camera focusing on frontman Marcus Mumford and accordionist Ben Lovett, before pulling back to show the whole group singing in perfect, intricate harmonies. Howard, who wore a golden sweater and thick-framed glasses that looked as big as her hair, then leaned forward for her turn, pointing her finger out as she sang as Mumford looked at her with a smile. John then took the next round, playing funky guitar lines, singing in an uncharacteristically low baritone and biting down on his lip when he played a bluesy piano run. In the end, though, it was Staples who stole the show, shouting, “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!” playing up the transcendent, almost gospel-like qualities of the song, before she laughed warmly.
Helm and his bandmates came to prominence in the mid ’60s when they backed Bob Dylan on his divisive tours after he went electric and accompanied him on the legendary Basement Tapes recordings. In 1968, the Band released their debut, Music From Big Pink, which contained “The Weight,” and, over the next decade, put out six more albums. They played a star-studded farewell concert in 1976, which director Martin Scorsese filmed and released as The Last Waltz two years later. After the breakup, Helm continued touring and recording with his own ensembles and a reunited version of the Band, and he played the occasional engagements with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters. In the mid-2000s, he began holding Midnight Ramble jams at his barn in Woodstock, New York. Mumford and Sons played one of those in February 2012. Helm was diagnosed with cancer in the late ’90s and died of complications related to the disease on April 19, 2012.