If I could have an up-close seat to watch any member of a rock n’ roll band, I would choose the drummer. Any drummer.
Guitarists and bass players dominate the front of the stage, but their business isn’t really all that interesting to watch. The hands go up and down and side to side, and that’s about it.
Sure, some guitarists will try spicing up their stage presence with a backflip or a rabid-dog run across the length of the stage.
But those of us who have tried it know that a flashy stage movement is usually accompanied by a power chord or a simple automatic-pilot lick. In other words, when a guitarist’s legs engage, their brain and their hands shut off.
Drummers don’t have that luxury. They have to use everything they’ve got.
Even the most primitive Charlie Wattsian drummer needs a certain level of limb independence to simultaneously conduct his duties — swatting and rolling here, kicking and pumping there.
To watch an amateur drummer attend to those multiple rhythmic tasks is enjoyable. To watch a truly world-class drummer do it, maintaining interlocking rhythms with all four limbs, is jaw-dropping.
In addition to those raw physical skills, a drummer also needs to have:
- A rock-steady rhythmic pulse. (I’ve played with singers with mediocre senses of rhythm. Those guys you can work around. But an unreliable or unsteady drummer is like a burned roux; you can’t compensate for that.)
- A knowledge of dynamics and a good pair of ears, to get loud and soft with everyone else.
- A sense of the song, so they can create rhythms that mesh with what everyone else is playing. (You’ve probably seen critics write: “Ringo Starr didn’t play drumbeats; he played songs.” Yes. This.)
To take this logic a step further (and why not?): If drummers work the hardest, and are where the action is onstage, a drummer who also sings is the absolute coolest thing to watch.
He can pump the hi-hat, and roll on the snare, and work the ride, and rock the words and the melody — usually while hunched into some weird body position to reach the mic, which must be set far enough away from him that he won’t run into it or hit it with his sticks. (In the days before headset mics, at least.)
Which brings us, as you knew it would, to Levon Helm.
Most every other blogger in the world has linked today to the video of The Band kicking off the Last Waltz with “Up On Cripple Creek.”
That’s the Levon Helm we all keep in our minds — holding that laid-back raggedy-ass shuffle, twisting his head far right to drawl into the mic. He’s building the barn and telling us a story at the same time, without missing a nail or a word.
And he makes it look so easy that we don’t think about how tricky it really is. Sure, he’d done it a million times — and would do it a million more — but that doesn’t make it simple.
Yes, the singing drummer is the coolest show on earth. And no one ever brought more funk, soul, grit and groove to the task than Levon Helm.
Helm may have hated the “Last Waltz” movie, and for valid reasons. But I’m glad it exists. And one reason is that opening version of “Up On Cripple Creek,” capturing forever the definitive image of Levon Helm doing the things he did so well.