Words & Images by: Tim Dwenger
Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble :: 08.08.09 :: The Barn (Levon Helm Studios) :: Woodstock, NY
In a day and age when ticket prices for the big shed and arena shows are soaring well into the triple digits, it has become increasingly more common for a couple to drop obscene amounts of money on a night out to see legends like Eric Clapton, Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel or Bruce Springsteen. With tickets anywhere near the stage running in the neighborhood of $150 (plus the endless charges tacked on by vendors), parking lots sometimes forcing drivers to shell out $30 or more for one space, and beers often ringing up at $8 a pop, a $400 night isn't out of the question. Yes, that's right, $400 dollars to be herded into a cavernous building with typically horrendous sound to "see" musicians that, if you are very, very lucky, might be 20 yards away. You can't see the expressions on their faces unless you look up at the Jumbotron, and there is rarely any kind of real intimacy created between the audience and the performer.
|Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble :: 08.08|
It is truly amazing that the concert industry has gotten to this point, but there are still a few bright points. Phish set their ticket prices below $50 for their entire summer tour as did those in charge of The Allman Brothers/Widespread Panic double bill, and way up in the woods of Woodstock, NY one of the true innovators of American rock 'n' roll has, since 2004, been throwing intimate parties in his home studio.
Levon Helm and his band of musical heavy hitters get together on Saturday nights throughout the year for "The Midnight Ramble." The idea was born out of the traveling medicine shows of the Deep South, and Helm explained the concept to Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz. "After the finale, they'd have the midnight ramble," Helm told Scorsese. "With young children off the premises, the show resumed. The songs would get a little bit juicier. The jokes would get a little funnier and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it a few times. A lot of the rock & roll duck walks and moves came from that."
Helm's not duck walking across the stage and children are allowed, but you get a true sense that something special is going to happen the moment you pull onto Helm's property just a minute or so outside of downtown Woodstock. Our adventure started with a right turn down a gravel driveway marked only by a simple mailbox and a no trespassing sign. After a few bends we emerged into a large clearing, where we were treated to our first glimpse of Levon Helm Studios (or The Barn) where Helm lives and where The Ramble was about to go down. A volunteer armed with a list and a pad of stickers greeted us, and after she checked off our names she handed us each a sticker and instructed us to wear them for the evening. We were then directed into a large field opposite the barn, where we parked and got out into the cool night air.
|The Barn :: 08.08|
We were immediately struck by the communal nature of the event. Groups of volunteers and patrons stood around talking together and musicians, including bandleader and multi-instrumental wizard Larry Campbell pulled up, parked alongside everyone else and said hello to old friends like it was a big bar-b-que at the neighbor's house. Much like many of those gatherings at the neighbors, everyone who attends is requested to bring some kind of food to share with the group and, in fact, the only kind of refreshment that is sold at The Barn is bottled water (all proceeds from which go to the SPCA).
We deposited our offering of pasta salad onto the communal food table alongside some delicious looking black and white cookies, picked up some red cups to pour our beers into, and headed off to explore a bit. We climbed the stairs to the second level where the studio is and as we entered I was shocked at how small the room actually was. Helm's drum kit was about eight feet from the door and the stage was pretty much in the middle of the room. After seeing his band at Red Rocks earlier in the summer I was amazed that it wouldn't be long before all 13 musicians that currently make up The Levon Helm Band would be packed together on this stage.
As I walked around the room I noticed a tribute to the deceased members of The Band, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko, and some high end recording equipment alongside old couches and family photos. We were in the man's home and that fact stuck with me all night. As we emerged onto a balcony on the back of the building I spotted Chicago blues legend Little Sammy Davis sitting in a covered outdoor lounge area right alongside some of the fans that had paid to make this pilgrimage. We went back inside to stake out a spot along the back wall of the main room where we would have a great view of the stage and some dancing room, and then headed back to the car to refresh our beverages.
|Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble :: 08.08|
It wasn't long before we heard cheers reverberating from the walls of The Barn and one of the volunteers remarked that "we must be getting to hear a few from Little Sammy tonight." We topped off and scurried back inside to catch a short but riveting set of old school blues that kicked off with "Shake Rattle and Roll," an old blues tune made famous by Big Joe Turner in 1954. An acoustic guitarist whose blues chops fit in perfectly alongside Davis' trademark harmonica licks accompanied the sound. Though Davis has been slowed a bit by a stroke he suffered recently, he showed that he is recovering nicely and even cracked a joke or two while not missing a beat in the six or seven songs that he ran through.
As Davis walked off stage right, Helm's manager, Barbara O'Brien, stepped up to introduce The Rowan Brothers (Lorin and Chris) who came on seconds later. They offered up a spirited 40-minute set highlighted by tight harmonies, some deft guitar and mando picking and stellar fiddle playing from a special guest Ms. Sue Cunningham. Midway through their set, Lorin Rowan introduced a song his brother Peter wrote with the late Bill Monroe, and invited Larry Campbell up to the stage for "Walls of Time." For the next three songs Campbell traded fiddle licks with Cunningham and sweetened up the vocal harmonies. After closing their set as a trio, the lights came up and we all headed out to our cars once again while the stage was set up for the main event.
At the stroke of nine Helm, Campbell and the rest of the band walked in the side door of the studio to a standing ovation. As they got situated onstage and checked their tunings the crowd hushed and focused on the 13 people onstage with rapt attention. The set opened with a raging version of The Band classic "The Shape I'm In" that gave keyboard player Brian Mitchell the chance to showcase the strength of his voice right off the bat. The five-piece horn section, lead by Steven Bernstein, punctuated the song's powerful changes and got a few people along the back wall moving early in the set.
|Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble :: 08.08|
The band came out of the gate firing on all cylinders, and as I stood there, one song in, I was amazed at the close quarters that this incredible music was being created in. The second song featured Helm's daughter Amy taking the reins on Ann Peebles' funky, horn driven "Love Played a Game" to keep the room jumpin'.
It is worth noting that Levon was on doctor ordered vocal rest for this show, after having overtaxed his voice on a long tour in support of his recent record, Electric Dirt (JamBase review here). Lead vocals throughout the evening were very capably handled by Amy, Larry Campbell, his wife Teresa Williams and Brian Mitchell. Amy Helm's vocals are outstanding and when paired with Teresa Williams, who shared the stage with the band for much of the evening, their harmonies are as close to perfection as I have heard. Before we got to hear our first taste of Teresa on lead, Larry introduced Brian Mitchell's second take on lead, saying, "Here's one by our friend Bob." The band launched into Dylan's "Simple Twist of Fate," and as Mitchell's voice seemed to take on qualities of both the famous bard and Randy Newman, I was stuck by the versatility showcased by this group on the uniquely Cajun take on the tune.
Though the entire set was phenomenal, there were a few moments that made my jaw hit the floor. The first came midway through the performance when the band launched into a triple header of songs the Grateful Dead made famous. The country bounce of the first, "Deep Ellum Blues," got the crowd moving in all corners of the room. Guys were swinging their girls and singing along with Larry Campbell on the well-known refrain as Brian Mitchell tickled the ivories and the horns provided a punch The Dead never gave this tune.
|Brian Mitchell :: Midnight Ramble :: 08.08|
As the dust settled, much of the band (including Levon) left the stage and stood among the crowd to watch reverently as Larry, Teresa and Amy sang a tear-jerking version of the Garcia/Hunter classic "Attics of My Life." The wood and stone room proved the perfect space for this song and the honey sweet harmonies that hung in the air would have made Jerry himself tear up. As the last notes faded into the night, the rest of the band returned to the stage and Larry led them into a rockin' "Tennessee Jed," the lead track on Electric Dirt. Again the back of the room became the dance floor as the horn section injected a New Orleans feel into the song.
The New Orleans spirit continued as Helm and company kept spirits high with a great rendition of Dr. John's "Mardi Gras Day" that featured Brian Mitchell doing his best Night Tripper impression and the horn section parading through the audience to the delight of the crowd.
After a few more tunes that kept the energy in the room at a fever pitch, Teresa Williams and Amy Helm stepped back up to the mic for a soulful reading of The Band's "It Makes No Difference." It was a shining moment for the late Rick Danko during his life and the two women paid him a fitting tribute by singing it with all their hearts, just like Rick would have done.
Then, we were treated to another standout moment of the evening when Larry Campbell coaxed tones from his guitar that I didn't know were possible as he interpreted Garth Hudson's famous organ intro to "Chest Fever." It was a minute or two of sheer brilliance and left me wiping drool off my chin long after Levon and the horns had kicked in and song was in full swing. The stretched out version of the song must have approached the ten-minute mark and featured some searing guitar duels between Campbell and the phenomenal Jimmy Weider who sparred with him all night long.
|Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble :: 08.08|
As the song drew to a close, Lorin and Chris Rowan could be seen hanging out along the edge of the stage and during the raucous standing ovation that followed, they took the stage along with jazz singer Cassandra Wilson for the finale, a group sing-along of "The Weight." While Lorin stumbled a few times on his verse, Wilson nailed hers and the whole room pitched in on the chorus throughout the timeless classic. All the while the smile that radiated from Levon's face lit up the room. If nothing else, it was clear that after all these years the man is still madly in love with making music.
As we walked out into the brisk Woodstock night the crowd spilling out was buzzing about what had just gone on in The Barn. Newcomers and seasoned ramble vets were all bursting at the seams and talking at once as they related their favorite parts of the evening to anyone who would listen.
So yes, it's expensive ($150 per person) to head up to the woods and catch a Ramble. But, with a capacity of around 200, and no seat in the room more than 25 or 30 feet from the stage, you are truly immersed in the music. The intimacy that Helm and his team have created in The Barn rivals any concert I have ever been to, and the pristine sound and the care taken to ensure that everyone on site has a great time is a tribute to how much these folks care about music and delivering a once in a lifetime experience. Helm is a musical legend and is proving, on many Saturday nights through the year, that he is still as innovative as ever.
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