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Friends, fans gather at Woodstock home of singer-drummer Levon Helm, recall his talents

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WOODSTOCK, N.Y. - There was a reunion, of sorts, at Woodstock on Thursday.

Musicians, friends and fans gathered in the board-and-batten barn where Levon Helm staged his Midnight Ramble concerts to remember the influential singer and drummer for The Band, who died of throat cancer last week at age 71.

Nearly 2,000 people attended his wake, not far from where The Band played at the Woodstock gathering in 1969, said a spokesman for the school bus company that shuttled mourners from the village to the wooded grounds of Helm's home and studio.

Helm's closed casket, in the second-floor studio of the barn, was surrounded by flowers and flanked by his drum kit and a piano.

"He was so down to earth," said Roland Mousaa, a folk musician who performed with Bob Dylan and other artists at Woodstock.

Sporting long grey hair, sequined sunglasses and a tie-dye shirt under a funereal black topcoat, Mousaa said, "The greatness of Levon Helm was the impact he had on people."

Visitors greeted family members and walked down a corridor lined with photos and memorabilia, including Helm's Grammys in a lighted case. Upstairs, they filed silently past the coffin and glimpsed a family photo slideshow before security staff urged them toward the back exit.

"He was an icon, but also the guy next door," said Al Caron, of Woodstock. "The Rambles were like a revival meeting. There was just a sense of euphoria from the minute you arrived at his home and he will be missed."

Helm, Danko, Garth Hudson, Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel's first album as The Band was 1968's "Music From Big Pink." That album and its follow-up, "The Band," remain landmark albums of the era, and songs such as "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "Up On Cripple Creek" are rock standards.

Early on, The Band backed Dylan on his electric tours of 1965-66 and collaborated with him on the legendary "Basement Tapes."

"He was my idol," said Dan McCabe, a college student pursuing a career in music production who played in a jazz band at one of Helm's Rambles.

The son of an Arkansas cotton farmer, Helm was just out of high school when he joined rocker Ronnie Hawkins in 1957 as the drummer for the Hawks. That band eventually recruited a group of Canadian musicians who, along with Helm, would join Dylan and ultimately become The Band.

The Band bid farewell to live shows with "The Last Waltz" concert in 1976. Eric Clapton, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Dylan were among the stars who played the show, filmed by Martin Scorsese.

Helm recorded "Dirt Farmer" in 2007 and "Electric Dirt" in 2009. Both albums won Grammys. He won another this year for "Ramble at the Ryman."

"He used his fame for good," said Pat McCabe, Dan's father. "He took time to give benefits for schools all over the area. He had a level of humanity over and above a mere rock star. Plus, he was a hell of a musician."

After a private funeral Friday, Helm will be buried in Woodstock Cemetery next to Rick Danko, The Band's singer and bassist, who died in 1999.

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