Lessons From Levon

According to Maldives frontman Jason Dodson.

The late Levon Helm is overtly present in the harmony-drenched, twang-inspired, folksy renaissance that has put Seattle back on the musical map. But few musicians have studied Levon’s legacy like Maldives/Sons of Warren Oates frontman Jason Dodson, performing in the Triple Door’s Levon Helm tribute night on Sunday with Ian Moore, event organizer Jeff Fielder, Lindsay Fuller, and many others.

We asked Dodson for a few words on Levon’s work and his undying influence on Dodson’s band the Maldives, whose Helm-tastic next record, Muscle for the Wing, is set for release October 16.

“Up on Cripple Creek” (The Band, 1969, by Robbie Robertson): I’ve always thought of Levon Helm as a kind of father figure. As in the kind of father that would give me the advice and wisdom found in “Up on Cripple Creek.” This song to me is about dirty love. And alcohol. The chorus blows me away, especially the final lines: “I don’t have to speak/She defends me/A drunkard’s dream/If I ever did see one.” Levon’s delivery in this song is spot-on. It is both world-weary and joyous, and just fucking perfect.

“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” (The Band, 1969, by Robbie Robertson): This is Levon’s shining moment, when all things perfect in the song world collide and give us, the record-store geeks and the classic-rock-radio nerds, a song that sets the standard. It is the perfect story song, and I have tried my hardest to re-create (i.e., mimic) it at least half a dozen times in the Maldives. And I don’t think most people quite understand what is happening in the song: It is told from a sympathetic viewpoint of Southerners during the Civil War. Blasphemy! And a top-10 radio hit? Go figure? Only Levon Helm could have sung this song (especially in The Band, seeing how he was the only American member).

“Poor Old Dirt Farmer” (Dirt Farmer, 2007, by Tracy Schwarz): “Poor Old Dirt Farmer” was Levon’s comeback song on his comeback album. His voice is so good on this one, even after having battled cancer for so long. The Maldives spent a lot of time singing along to this song in the van on tour—so much that we decided to cover it a few summers back at the No Depression Festival out at Marymoor Park. Jeff Fielder and company were the backing band at that show, and I have a sneaky feeling that’s how this whole Levon Helm tribute night came about.

“Tennessee Jed” (Electric Dirt, 2009, by Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter): Jeff Fielder asked me to sing this one, and to be honest, I am not that familiar with it. The album Electric Dirt was a bit too difficult for me to listen to. As celebratory as the songs are, you can tell Levon was in pain and that he is dying, and that was just too hard for me to handle. I always think of art and artists as the star that people wish upon. Levon Helm may just as well have been the sun.