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From Turkey Scratch To The Last Waltz, `The Band' Played On

HOW do you tell the story of one of the greatest bands to roll across the face of music in the last 30 years - a band that influenced Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton?

If you're Levon Helm, one of The Band's members, you weave together vivid sketches with a genuine Arkansan voice.

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With Stephen Davis, Helm gives us ``This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the story of The Band,'' the latest book on the group.

The story begins in Helm's hometown of Turkey Scratch, Ark., and gives the reader a feel for the land and the people that formed the backdrop for The Band's music. Influenced early on by the Grand Ole Opry, Sonny Boy Williamson, and his own musical family, Helm knew that music would be his life and after high school joined the Hawks, Ronnie Hawkins's band.

After gigging in Canada and attracting attention among musicians, the Hawks became legendary. Soon after, the makeup of the band changed. Enter, one by one, four Canadian musicians: Robbie Robertson (guitarist), Rick Danko (bassist), Richard Manuel (keyboardist and singer), and finally Garth Hudson (keyboardist and classically trained musician).

Late in 1963, the five new Hawks, led by Helm, parted ways with Hawkins to polish their signature sound: three-voice, layered harmonies. The next two years were spent playing clubs in Canada and the United States.

Before long, Bob Dylan asked them to accompany him on tour and at his 1965 Hollywood Bowl show. Although the tour got mixed reactions, it took The Band further down the road toward Woodstock and their rented house, Big Pink, where they produced some of the most significant music of their time.

The album, ``Music From Big Pink'' features one of their most popular songs, ``The Weight.'' The title of the book comes from another song from the album.

Helm writes, ``We wanted Music From Big Pink to sound like nothing anyone else was doing.... The main thing was the spirit. We worked so hard on that music that no matter what the song credits say - who supposedly wrote what - you'd have to call it a full-bore effort by the group to show what we were all about.''

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Interestingly, the musicians had signed on with Capitol records as ``The Crackers,'' and were stunned to see the released album credited to ``The Band.''

But they didn't object because everyone in their adopted town of Woodstock, Vt., already referred to them by that name.

Part of the appeal of this book is the honest way in which Helm relates his stories, giving us direct quotes from the people involved. As each member of The Band is introduced, we get in his own words the hopes and goals he brought to the group.

Helm takes us through the highs and lows of life in Woodstock and the challenges The Band faced as their notoriety grew and they fell under influences other than music.

Indeed, by the time we get to The Last Waltz - the name given to The Band's final public appearance (1975) and the film and music that recorded the event - Helm does not withhold his bitterness over the growing hold big business and ego had on The Band and the demise they signaled.

``This Wheel's on Fire'' depicts excesses sometimes associated with the music scene. But it's done only with the desire to paint a fair picture of The Band's experience.

The book's final chapter brings us up to date with Helm's musical and movie career as well as briefly touching on the activities of the rest of the group.

One is left with respect for the sheer musicianship of The Band and admiration for the sincerity with which they created honest music and lyrics that bucked the musical tide of their time.

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