Up On Cripple Creek

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The First Dance at The Last Waltz Up Cripple Creek with a paddle getting puddled


It’s Levon’s world, we only live in it.

This may be the definitive live Levon Helm performance. It’s their first song upon taking the stage at The Last Waltz – and Levon took control, grounding not only his Band, but everybody in Winterland. And that’s quite a crew. This was the closest thing to a royal coronation the rock world had ever experienced – due almost entirely to the great visionary show producer, Bill Graham. But everything from the overwhelming camera presence, to all the all-star guests including Beatles, Stones, and Dylans, to the small venue, to the magnitude of the event, to the amount of drugs backstage, this has got to be one of the hardest opening songs to ever play in history. (see, also: Havens, Richie)

Just like Christina Aguilera's James Brown turn at the Grammies, extra credit must be given considering a performance’s circumstances, conditions and who else is in the room watching; and here the props go to the Bandleader who first led these shy Canadian ragamuffins into a world of Southern barroom swing. Just as it was always Lennon who had to step up in The Beatles’ big moments, it’s, “Give the ball to Levon, he won’t drop it.” And man, does he take control.
I can’t think of another performance on film of Levon delivering with this passionate precision. If you know of a better one, do share.
It’s the crack of his bat: the Charlie Watts solidity with the Memphis funk; A rock attack with a folk singer’s sensibility. As Bill Graham put it so simply, “The thump of Levon’s drums is different than any other thump.” It’s the snap, the on-the-beat and nuthin-else, the jazz subtly during a rock thunder-clap.
And Lord love that “shoadle shack and yoddle yak” climax when he’s roundin’ third and headin’ for home! Groove complete. The show may begin.
And P.S. have you ever tried drumming and singing lead? I don’t know how anybody does it, let alone this well.
Up On Cripple Creek” is The Band’s love-ode to the road. Like the engaging story-telling they consistently conjure, so too is this Magical Musical Evening composed, with the curtain opening to this confessional evocation from the characters. They may be singing …
“And this livin’ off of the road is getting pretty old,”
Except . . .
“But ya know, deep down, I’m sorta tempted to go and see my Bessy (the road) again.” And there lies the caveat clue to Levon’s long performing life that’s continued to this day, despite health issues that woulda killed ten men.
Creek and Stage Fright are the two devils on so many musician’s shoulders. The horror of the man with the stage fright “standin’ up there to give all his might,” versus the “anything she could do” of the happy “drunkard’s dream” on the road that tore at this Band and almost all others. And here we hear each of the devil’s songs sung as by angels.   

The Band: (left to right): Richard Manuel (keyboards & vocals); Rick Danko (bass & vocals); Garth Hudson (organ); Robbie Robertson (guitar & vocals); Levon Helm (lead vocals & drums).

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