When Levon Helm succumbed to cancer on April 19, 2012 his death called to mind the line "Why do the best things always disappear" from The Band's "Ophelia," a song that featured one of Helm's finest vocal performances. It was hard to believe that Helm was gone. The Band and by extension, Helm, seemed eternal. They seemed like they had been plucked straight out of a Matthew Brady Civil War photograph; they seemed constant, like the American landscape they depicted in their music. But even mountains don't last forever.
Helm's passing was marked by an outpouring of love and tributes; one such tribute is The Ramble at Radio Radio, a concert benefitting Down Syndrome Indiana. The Ramble will feature local musicians recreating The Last Waltz in its entirety. It's a suitable name for the benefit concert as Helm called the series of concerts he staged to help pay for his medical bills related to his throat cancer.
According to Matt Mays, the current chair of Tonic Ball and one of the organizers of The Ramble, Jeff Grantham, who plays the role of Martin Scor in The Ramble, sparked the idea with an email asking for suggestions for a Levon Helm tribute show.
"And it turned into this like two- or three-week long crazy email chain, where it morphed into this idea, [that] we could do The Last Waltz and Tad's band, The Haters, do a lot of this material already and realized there were so many people that wanted to be involved. So I think that The Last Waltz probably just served that purpose," said Mays.
Deciding what roles those involved would play was often left to personal affinity. Matt Mays leapt at the chance to portray Van Morrison.
"It's my favorite performance of the show. And probably only the one I can come close to trying to sing accurately. Since I was probably 7 - I was born three weeks before that show and I've been watching it for most of my life - it's probably one of my first memories of life. His performance is one of my favorite things of all time," said Mays.
For Tad Armstrong, who performs the part of Rick Danko and sings Helm's vocals, playing the music of The Band was a natural choice for him and his band, The Haters.
"Most of it was fairly organically grown. I did pipe up early on and just in terms of 'Hey we know all The Band songs.' I guess I was kind of quietly hoping that they would allow us to play at least some of them. I didn't really plan on being The Band. But I love that," said Armstrong. "And I think that a lot of people volunteered for some things and some people were volunteered for other things. There were a couple people who weren't really included in the original email chain, that we put in just because they'd be great. Mike Wiltrout [who portrays Neil Diamond] is a great example."
Brian Deer is one of the latter. Deer didn't choose the role of Eric Clapton; it was suggested for him. Deer said Neil Young was another role he was interested in portraying
"I've never played either of the Clapton songs that I'm doing and I was a huge Clapton fan when I was 15 but not really so much anymore. But that era of Clapton is my favorite. And it's kind of been fun learning these songs with that perspective of going 'Ok, I really do like this stuff, this Clapton stuff,'" said Deer
The Last Waltz was a film documenting the farewell concert for The Band, which was held on November 25, 1976, at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. The concert featured an all-star lineup of musicians including Bob Dylan, Young, The Staple Singers, Morrison, Joni Mitchell and Clapton. The film, directed by Martin Scorsese, is widely considered one of the greatest rock and roll films of all time.
Prompted by a boating accident which injured multi-instrumentalist Richard Manuel as well as Robbie Robertson's growing disenchantment with the touring life, the group decided to become a studio-only entity. This studio-only phase didn't last long, producing only one studio album, 1977's Islands, the final studio album with the original lineup. The Band would reunite in 1983 but wouldn't release another studio album until 1993's Jericho. Manuel committed suicide in 1986 at the age of 42.
Down Syndrome Indiana, the benefactor of the event, holds special meaning for Mays.
"My son has Down syndrome and he'll be 2 on August 1. I spent a long time getting him to health and this is really my family's first foray into getting involved. And it just so happened it worked out and these guys were game for it," said Mays
Tad Armstrong affirmed the support of those involved.
"Something that was really cool to see was when it was suggested that maybe we could do it as a fundraiser. Matt suggested DSI, everyone immediately went on board," said Armstrong.
According to Lisa Wells, executive director of Down Syndrome Indiana, this is the first time DSI has been involved with a benefit concert. Wells described the partnership as a good fit.
"Down Syndrome Indiana is incredibly fortunate that many of our families also serve as leaders in their community. Matt Mays and so many other volunteers stepped up and offered to host The Ramble to raise much-needed funds for Down syndrome awareness, this was a no brainer. This committee is uniquely qualified to put on an event of this scope as they are the same group that hosts the Tonic Ball for Second Helpings," said Wells.
Mays said that things were looking good for the event, everyone involved is very enthusiastic and 100 percent of the proceeds are going directly to Down Syndrome Indiana.
"We're already about halfway sold out. (Editors note: At print time, the event was nearly sold out. Find ticket info at nuvo.net.)There will probably be a decent amount of walk up and so I think it'll be nice and full That always makes the musicians feel better. And yeah, doing it for Down Syndrome Indiana is a big deal, for me. And I'm glad everybody went along with that. I think it'll be cool," said Mays.
The Ramble should serve as a worthy tribute to the life and work of a legendary musician and will remind attendees why they fell in love with music in the first place.