The Levon Helm Midnight Ramble, Woodstock, NY – 9/18
Photo by Gary McKeever
Guarantees are rarely more than marketing minutia, often over-selling, only to under-whelm. Yet, veterans of Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble seem desperate to do just that- to guarantee the world at large that this little barn in Woodstock, New York is where the magic happens.
Helm’s barn is part studio, part museum, and part home; literally attached to his house, this barn/garage is beautifully constructed using only wood and natural materials- read: no nails. Once checked in, you are free to roam. A large group congregates around the community pot luck table, stocked by the guests themselves and kept downstairs in the ‘garage’ area. The walls in the garage are lined with characters from Helm’s life and travels; it’s this nostalgia and lore mixed with in-the-minute vitality that helps make the whole experience so electric and captivating. If you have a love for this music, it plays the heart strings with a master’s touch.
Ascending into the barn/studio, the room gets packed, but not prohibitively so. You remain free to move around during the show, and you can enjoy the event from any number of angles, which is unheard of at this level of heritage or ticket price. And though the tickets are a bit on the steep side- $150 per seat- the relative value is much higher than the same money spent on, say, Coldplay in a stadium with a sea of thousands. The only (slight) issue with this is that the standing room only crowd can occasionally block the view for the seated.
If a show costs $150 a seat, you should always catch the opener, yet there were a number of folks outside when the excellent Scott Sharrard Band took to the rugs. Shararrd, guitarist for the Gregg Allman Band, is a singer/songwriter in the southern soul vein, and it is apparent that he’s done his homework. His voice rightfully draws attention; his tenor knows some classic tricks, but he offers the songs with power and conviction. His guitar playing, much like his voice, is fluid and soulful, encompassing Cropper, Hendrix, and BB King. In fact, fans of King’s Indianola Mississippi Seeds era will find a lot to love about the SSB. Drummer Diego Voglino and bassist Jeff Hanley greased the pocket, and pianist/organist Brian Charette was ready with flair and flavor as needed.
Highlights included “Riverside” and Howard Tate’s “8 Days On The Road”, off the newest release Ante Up; “Paris” and “Tell The Truth” off 2007’s Analog/Monolog, and a brand new piece titled “Twilight Angel”. “Angel,” sounding like a lost Hendrix classic, was an unintended tribute on this, the fortieth anniversary of Jimi’s passing, and was well-received by the crowd. Closing with Ante Up’s opener “Put Your Soul Records On”, Sharrard stoked the crowd’s fire.
Said fire then exploded into an extended standing ovation once Levon and band claimed the stage. Helm has been a staple of Woodstock for decades, and you can easily feel why he has remained. There’s a lot of love for the man and the music reciprocates the affection. Slamming into a killer “Shape I’m in” and then rolling right into “Rock and Roll Shoes” with guest bandmate Jackie Greene at Levon’s heels, there were a lot of smiles on stage, and that feeling got infectious. Musical director for the evening, old friend Jimmy Vivino, who was just named Conan O’Brien’s musical director, was wide-eyed and rocking hard, keeping the band and crowd grooving together.
The first musical guests of the night arrived after “Crash on the Levee” and “Look Out Cleveland” when Soozie Tyrell and Jane Scarpantoni came aboard for Lowell George’s signature, “Willin’”. Waiting for Tyrell’s violin and Scarpantoni’s cello to get added to the mix, Helm succinctly cracked “More Cowbell!”, dispelling the wait and lightening the mood. Tyrell’s twang brought a different gravitas to the proceedings, taking this northern ramble down home to the southern affairs Helm grew up admiring and taking part in. Greene lent slide guitar, and Vivino added a mandolin-inspired acoustic guitar solo as well.
“Ophelia” was followed by Allen Touissaint’s “On Your Way Down”, then the Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” covered on Helm’s Grammy-winning Electric Dirt (2009). Listening to this cover, which could have fit on any number of The Band’s albums, makes one realize just how much of their earthiness came from the drummer’s throne. Watching Levon’s instincts on the kit- the odd angles of his strikes, the casual roll of the wrists- is a lesson of the deepest kind.
As Levon instructed Vivino to “Wing it, Jimmy!”, the ensemble turned out a lovely, unrehearsed “Rockin’ Chair,” followed by Brian Mitchell’s lead through Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate.” Mitchell’s accordion here brought out the French undertones of the NOLA sound, and his vocal paid obvious homage to Dr. John. That previously-mentioned earthiness was thick here, and enjoyable, especially Byron Issacs on upright bass.
A nice surprise came with Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” again with Tyrell on vocals, and Vivino putting down the six-string to climb behind the Hammond B3. Also surprising was a blues turn through “Deep Feeling” and Willie Dixon’s “The Same Thing.” “Feeling,” the instrumental B-side of Chuck Berry’s “School Days,” fully showcased why Jim Weider was chosen to play guitar in The Band post- The Last Waltz. Touching on other great Tele-masters like Roy Buchanan and Muddy Waters, everybody followed Weider’s lead through the tune, including Howard Johnson on tuba, Steve Bernstein on trumpet, Erik Lawrence on sax, and Clark Gayton on trombone. As Vivino counted off “The Same Thing,” Helm actually stopped him, and slowed it down just a hair- for the better. As Jackie and Levon sang it together, it was amazing to think that Levon had a non-cancerous lesion removed from his vocal chords only a year ago. His voice was sharp and strong, and was the most singing he had done since the operation.
A beautiful take on “Tears of Rage” and a strong “Across the Great Divide” led into “The Weight” finale. Of “The Weight,” much has been written, many versions have been done, and it remains a near perfect piece of American music. Welcoming back Tyrell and Scarpantoni, as well as Scott Sharrard, the tune felt like a love-in with 200 of your closest strangers, and once done, the crowd and musicians mingled for a while.
Born from humble beginnings and beloved memories, the Midnight Rambles are a unique treasure in the American musical landscape. Turning 70 this year, Helm has survived much adversity, personally and professionally, private or not. To enter this barn is to enter his home, and the sincerity of that statement is apparent only once experienced. Pilgrims looking to trip through the last century of American roots music, this is your Mayflower.