Levon Helm | 11.17 | Woodstock, NY

Words by: Brian Bavosa | Images by: Paul LaRaia

Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble :: 11.17.07 :: Levon Helm Studios :: Woodstock, NY

Levon Helm :: Midnight Ramble :: 10.20.07
Rock & roll has always been loud, boisterous, flamboyant and completely over-the-top. It's ranged from Check Berry's duck walk, David Bowie's makeup and the on-stage gyrations of Mick Jagger to the tongue of Kiss' Gene Simmons, the pyrotechnics, groupies and spandex of '80s hair metal, and even the feedback heavy emo, indie rock and post-jam music of today. There are exceptions to the rule, chief among them The Band. Their name whispers of selflessness and anonymity, and it's no mistake they took root in Woodstock, NY, where the trees grow tall, the rivers run crystal clear and the musical forces seem nothing short of spiritual. Their legendary drummer and voice of many of their greatest tunes, Levon Helm - the sole member to remain a Woodstock resident for over 30 years – periodically hosts a special Midnight Ramble in his own home. Over the years, a rotating cast of friends has shown up to play with Helm including Elvis Costello, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, John Medeski and The Muddy Waters Band.

A further sign of just how special these intimate gatherings are is the guests in the crowd of maybe 200, which have included former Phish members Mike Gordon and Jon Fishman. As Helm's website states, "You never know who's going to show up!"

Steven Bernstein :: Midnight Ramble :: 10.20.07
Upon pulling onto Helm's property on Saturday night, there were friendly volunteers helping to park cars and giving instructions on how things worked. I walked by a sign that read: "Beware of the Bears." More like a family gathering than a concert, everyone was encouraged to bring food, wine or whiskey to share. A total communal atmosphere prevailed that was only furthered by the giant fireplace inside. Downstairs, there was simply a small room where food was spread out, a merchandise booth and a hallway where pictures of Helm's illustrious career and notes from friends and fans hung, along with a few doors that connected the studio/barn to his actual home.

Recently, Helm released his first solo record in over 25 years, Dirt Farmer (released October 30 on Dirt Farmer Music LLC). Helm is incredibly proud of this effort since a battle with throat cancer almost silenced his fiery voice, the same voice we all know from quite possibly the greatest concert film ever - The Band's The Last Waltz. In fact, the Rambles began in 2004 as a way to help Helm keep his majestic property as his medical bills piled sky high. They haven't slowed down since, and eventually opened up to the general public. This night saw a mix of locals, family, friends and a few visiting groups like my own.

Once upstairs in the studio, the shock of just how intimate a setting this was got me even more excited. Half barn, half studio, it reminded me of Trey Anastasio's structure in Vermont. With a few dozen folding chairs laid out basically touching the stage, most people had to stand. I settled into the last row of the top balcony - no more than 30 feet from the stage - and waited for things to get going. The first act was a combination of two Finnish groups that had both recorded albums in the studio earlier in the week. Eero Raittinen and the Noisy Kind of Men and The Ninni Poijärvi Trio. I can honestly say these folks were awesome, especially in between songs when they spoke in Finnish accents only to bust into a spot-on country rocker, which they sang in a perfect Southern drawl. Simply mind-blowing!

Levon Helm :: Midnight Ramble :: 10.20.07
The next act was Sandrine with Malcolm Burn and Craig Santiago. Sandrine has a superb voice in the vein of Feist and Cat Power, and her mellow indie-pop set was very slow and cozy, much like the bathrooms in the barn, which have showers, toiletries and clothes hanging in them! The only thing missing was someone's dad reading the morning paper.

Around 10:15, Helm was introduced, and my first impression was how damn good the man looked. His smile was infectious as he waved his way across the small stage, pulled on his black, left hand glove, positioned himself behind the kit, and said they were going to start with a song that guitarist Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Phil Lesh & Friends), "used to play every night," Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry." Also of note was how at home and comfortable Campbell looked right from the start. He was much more animated than any of the times I've caught him with Phil Lesh this past tour.

After the opener, Helm took a second to blow his nose, and then he counted off before blasting into one of his most beloved tunes, "Ophelia." I must admit, I was a little skeptical at how well Helm could still play the drums (what is it with 67-year-old guys like Helm and Phil Lesh?) but "Ophelia" assuaged my doubts. Helm hit the skins with style and grace while singing his heart out through his Cheshire Cat grin. Even after watching The Last Waltz a zillion times and listening to his music for years, not until this exact moment did I realize what an amazing drummer he is.

The next half hour or so saw Helm switch back and forth between mandolin and drums, accompanying The Levon Helm Band through numbers from his new album with barn-burning favorites like "Rag Mama Rag" sprinkled in. Helm was accompanied by Campbell, Mike Merritt on upright bass, Erik Lawrence and Steven Bernstein on horns and Brian Mitchell on keys. The night also saw appearances by Little Sammy Davis on harmonica for some bluesy numbers including Muddy Waters' "40 Days and 40 Nights."

Levon Helm :: Midnight Ramble :: 10.20.07
Helm's playing this night was just like his persona - humble. Make no mistake, he can keep up with any drummer I have ever seen, while also managing to never step on anyone's toes (maybe it was because we were in his living room and no shoes were required). While rock & roll often screams for attention, Levon Helm, his Midnight Rambles and Woodstock offer a whisper not loud enough to spill the secret but just loud enough to let you know the Dirt Farmer is still reaping his musical crops for all to share.

Later in the set, Helm welcomed Teresa Williams, on vocals and acoustic guitar, and his daughter, Amy Helm. Amy's vocals were angelic, and especially shined on an extremely heart-wrenching "Long Black Veil," complete with dad on mandolin. Throw in a cover of "Blue Light Boogie," most notably known by Taj Mahal, which featured fierce playing from the horn section which had me feeling like I was in a straight up juke joint, and this was a night for the books. The LHB, from top to bottom, was the tightest group I have seen in a very long time. They switched from rock, blues, country, gospel, jazz and everything in between without blinking. To top things off, Helm threw in a roaring "Chest Fever" and a set closing "The Weight," which had everyone singing along. To say it was a perfect ending would not be doing this event justice. Anyone who loves music should experience the Midnight Ramble once before they die. I, for one, can't wait to "take a load off" at this thing again.

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NickBoeka Mon 11/26/2007 04:18PM
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Brian, thanks for covering this!! This night really sounded like a super special treat, and I'm jealous. Levon looks like he is having a blast, just checkout the shit-eating grin on all those pics above. oh yeah, The Last Waltz is absolutely one of the greatest music documentaries ever, thanks Scorsese.

gmoo Mon 11/26/2007 04:20PM
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Go Levon!

moecheeseplease Mon 11/26/2007 04:33PM
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i went to a ramble last winter and it was awesome. one of the coolest experiences ever. im not saying this is a bad article but the experience is ten times better than can be put in words.

johnnygoff starstarstarstarstar Mon 11/26/2007 09:07PM
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this is what the jambase, let alone 'the web' is for. < 200 peeps in an intimate upstate (or anywhere for that matter) ny gathering = perfect time for a review. i can get phil reviews and trey reviews and wsp and lotus reviews anywhere...............................................................................................................................................................(you make me put this dots in here jambase for spaces).........................................................but great taste BB and AK for allowing/recommending/writing this piece..................you get the big time pieces, the wierd/abstract pieces and the jamband pieces......but this one falls out of all of those genres............................so unique.............I wish I was there!............................THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT OF A MUSIC REVIEW..................LET THIS PIECE BE AN EXAMPLE OF EVERYTHING JAMBASE PUTS ON ITS E-PAGES. cheers via the_goff.

‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^› {¬¿¬} starstarstarstarstar Tue 11/27/2007 05:16AM
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‹^› ‹(•¿•)› ‹^›      {¬¿¬}

old school!!! I have his new album. Not bad! country blues :)

matthau Tue 11/27/2007 07:56AM
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Nice review....however if it took you so long to realize how amazing Levon is at the drums, man ya got to have yer ears checked. All great bands start with the drummer, and Levon is one of the best that has ever roamed this earth. This is case in point why nobody really covers the band all that well. Nobody can imitate Levone's tightly/loose style.

welting Tue 11/27/2007 05:37PM
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Need To Go!!!

tomthumb86 starstarstarstarstar Wed 11/28/2007 08:50AM
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Live music is pretty much my life. There is nothing in the world that has come close to the intamance, family vibe and the "happening" feeling so much as a ramble. I sat about ten feet from Levon Helm. When they say youre in dudes house, youre in dudes house. If you go to the bathroom theres like toothpaste and shampoo in there. GO TO THE RAMBLE. No way can it stay that cool for this long, the secret is out.

guitardave starstarstarstarstar Wed 11/28/2007 11:05AM
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I had the pleasure of opening up for Levon and The Barnburners a couple years ago. He couldn't have been nicer, a true gentleman. He was unable to sing at that time and when he talked it seemed like his voice was gone forever. How great it is that we all have those pipes back.

King Rhino starstarstarstarstar Thu 11/29/2007 10:10AM
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If you have a chance to see a Midnight Ramble.... DO IT!!!!

I sat 3 feet from Levon Helm in his house and saw and heard him do "Evangeline", "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Dow".


Plus, I got to pet Levon's dog.

theragman starstarstarstarstar Fri 11/30/2007 04:30AM
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Damn, Levon kicks so much ass!

moejoerisin Fri 11/30/2007 07:04PM
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great review.. levon is the man. my buddies recorded an album at his house and said he's the most genuine, happy guy they'd ever met. sounds like an unforgettable experience to say the least.

headySetList starstarstar Mon 12/3/2007 11:33AM
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i wish i was there...

AskGreatQuestions Tue 12/4/2007 11:53AM
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i went to a ramble 2 years ago and i saw levon do a free show at a farmers market last month and there is no other show like it. nothing else that ive seen has the same emotion in it, the smae connection to every single song they play even if its not one of levons. even if you have to travle hundreds of miles to get to one do it you wont regret it at all

petemora starstarstarstarstar Mon 12/10/2007 12:11PM
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Levon is a legend. "The Last Waltz" is the second greatest rock movie ever.

The first is, of course, "Kiss Meets the Phantom".

Marbles1 starstarstarstarstar Sat 12/15/2007 06:50PM
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That was an amazing show and evening. The energy of the community, bands and barn blow me away. I was stoked to get turned on to the finnish groups and Craig Santiago, Sandrine and Malcome took me to a new heart space. I have to admit how sweet it was to see a pregnant Amy Helm singing with her dad and playing with her husband. It was a total family gathering. I sat next to Larry Campbells mom directly in front of the horns...we had to lean back so we would not get blown away. What a beautiful evening in Woodstock.