Levon Gets Personal

The Midnight Ramble: Levon Helm Band & The Wood Brothers
Levon Helm Studios
Woodstock, New York
January 17, 2009

I don’t normally start reviews in the first-person, but a Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm’s home studio is a wholly personally event.

With no sign or marquee announcing the night’s show or to even help let onto the location of Helm’s home studio, the first part of your night is finding the studio itself.  This involves creeping along Plochmann Lane, a poorly lit road in Woodstock, trying to read the numbers off of the mail boxes.  When you finally find the right one, you pull off onto an even darker road that winds it way through the woods.  The subtle traces of light peeking through the snow-covered branches is your only real sign that you are heading the right way. 

Why the long intro for a review that is supposed to focus on the music?  Part of the adventure, part of what makes a Midnight Ramble so special is the trip there.

levon3.jpg This show is not on a main street or in some big city; it is at Helm’s house, on a dark street in the Catskill Mountains.  It is a bit hard to find at night, but you know you are at the right place as a friendly face, with a clipboard in one hand and a drink in the other greets you and points to a snow-plowed area next to the house and says, “You can park there.  Have a great night.”

It is not until you enter the studio that it truly hits you where you are at.  The downstairs wall is lined with pictures of Helm and The Band, his dog – Muddy, his family, and the various musicians who have recorded there.  A sign in the bathroom reminds you to “Please be respectful.  Not only is this is a working studio, but it is also Levon’s house.”

For Chris Wood of the Wood Brothers, who opened the night, this proved to be a humbling bit of news.  During their set, he commented, “We are in Levon’s house, from The Band.  I am freaking out.”  His brother Oliver tried to calm his younger sibling’s nerves, “It’s just a gig man!”

Despite Chris’s stated nervousness, The Wood Brothers’ set showed no sign of any uncertainty.  Their stripped down take on the blues seemed to be perfectly suited for the evening’s atmosphere.  With a fire roaring in the back of the studio and the crowd paying rapt attention, the duo worked through a set that pulled from both of their albums.  The quite intense air seemed to give new meaning and power to their songs.  They even found time to break out a new tune, “Losing Steam,” that featured a rare vocal turn by Chris.  They were joined mid-set by John Medeski on keys and Ben Perowsky on drums, who provided an equally rare full-band live set.  Chris seemed to be thrilled to have his longtime band mate join him for such a special night.  As they plowed through the set closing “Luckiest Man’, you could see Medeski and Chris share those glances and looks they have shared a thousand times on stage.  Afterwards Chris reminded everyone, “It was great to have John hang with us…He is REAL good.”  For Oliver, his night was not over with the end of the Wood Brothers set.  He hung around and rocked out to the Levon Helm Band set that was soon to come.  He later joined in for a night ending version of The Band classic “The Weight.”

levon1.jpg

As great as the Wood Brothers are, the reason people flock to Woodstock, driving long distances on snow covered back roads, was for the man whose house we came to, Levon Helm.  His past, his resume are well known – playing with Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan, before becoming The Band and shaping the way Americana-Rock ‘n’ Roll is played, legendary drummer, voice of The Band.  After a scare in the late 1990s with throat cancer that threatened to silence his road-worn-smooth-southern-growl, Helm regained his voice and started singing again.

Helm began holding his “Midnight Rambles” in the early part of the decade in his “Barn” studio, which is attached to his house.  They are based on the Southern-Medicine shows of his youth (that were later immortalized in The Band’s “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show”), and are loose affairs.  There is a table downstairs for food, which people attending the show bring to share.  Upstairs in the studio, there is no stage, the band sets up in the middle of the room – backed by an elevated area that houses the soundboard, and fronted by a small set of folding chairs – but you are free to watch the show from anywhere in the studio you want, many people simply find a nice piece of real-estate leaning against the wall or a wooden beam.  The evening starts with an opener, followed by Helm and his band who play a lengthy set (over two and half hours this night with no breaks) and are joined by whoever is in the area or has been recording at the studio.

On this evening soul-jazz singer Catherine Russell and guitarist Jim Weider joined the party.  Russell, who has been recording a new album in Helm’s studio, brought a deep soulful edge to the night with her powerful voice and led the band through a couple of her tunes including the playful, “I Don’t Care Who Knows”.  The full night guest sit-in from Weider sparked Helm to break out a couple of long forgotten Band gems.

Weider, a Woodstock native, joined the reformed version of The Band in 1985.  While their output was limited during this time, some of their work from then can stand shoulder to shoulder with The Band’s best.  One of these tunes, the Weider penned “Remedy”, was broken out tonight after laying dormant for way too many years.  The long layoff caused Helm to pause as he was starting to count off the beginning of the song, and to start humming the melody, before remarking with a laugh, “It’s been a while since we have done this one.”  Helm also broke out another long forgotten classic this evening, “Across the Great Divide.”  After nailing the rarely played tuned, Helm added with a laugh and a smile, “Even a blind chicken finds a piece of corn.”

levon2.jpgIt would be easy for Helm to fill his set with a bunch of Band tunes, sing “The Weight”, and call it a night.  But Midnight Rambles are much more than that.  Sure there are the requisite Band songs (on this evening that included “Chest Fever”, “Rag Mama Rag”, and “Ophelia” among others), a sampling of covers that Helm has toyed with in one guise or another throughout his long musical career (Dr. John’s “Such a Night” and Willie Dixon’s “Same Thing” to name a few), and a taste of Helm’s new album (“Anna Lee” and “Got Me a Woman”), but the real heart of the Ramble, what gives it it’s soul and makes it a truly special musical event is the way in which Helm shares not only his house with a slew of strangers, but the way he shares his stage with his friends, both old and new.

Throughout the course of the night, anyone on stage may step and take a turn with a song.  This evening there was the aforementioned Russell, tuba player Howard Johnson (who played with The Band on their live Rock of Ages album from 1972) who took a turn with “Natural Anthem”, and Teresa Williams who led the way a couple of times during the night.  But the big surprise was guitarist Larry Campbell.  Campbell’s guitar skills have never been in question.  A longtime member of Bob Dylan’s band and more recently Phil Lesh and Friends, Campbell has always seemed to be the quiet one in the back with his hair in his face. But this evening he was out front chatting up the crowd and telling jokes, taking lead vocals, and laying down an electrifying riff during “Chest Fever” where Garth Hudson’s organ usual exists.  And he was funny (who knew it?)

With his Midnight Ramble, Helm has created what he first saw in his youth with the wild Medicine Shows he grew up with in the south.  He has taken the all-night ragers he once knew and brought the idea of community and sharing that they embodied and brought them to his house in the woods.  He has created a one of a kind unique musical event that gathers a group of strangers throws them in a barn with some kick-ass music and makes them feel right at home on a snow covered-road in the Catskill Mountains.

And he has made it personal.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *