A year ago today [as I begin to write this], Levon Helm breathed his last. Levon Helm was first diagnosed with throat cancer [“cancer of the vocal chords” as Levon put it] in the late 1990s. Faced with medical bills and a mortgage on his house and barn in Woodstock, NY, Levon started having Midnight Rambles at “the barn.” Levon’s friends [of which there were many] would show up and play the shows with him. He couldn’t sing, but he could still play the drums and the mandolin for others. The shows would start at roughly 8:30pm and last until they were done playing. The Rambles started as a way to pay Levon’s bills. Afterwards they evolved into exercises for Levon to work to regain his singing voice in an environment where he wouldn’t be pressured by promoters or club owners to sing the hits and carry the show by himself. About once a month, the musicians who played the Rambles played what they wanted as long as they wanted to an audience of about 200 people. Once Levon felt his voice was strong enough, he started to record music again. He recorded his Grammy-winning Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt albums at the barn. His daughter Amy has her own band – Ollabelle – who also recorded at the barn. The barn is important in Levon Helm’s story.
In October 2012, Levon Helm’s friends gathered at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey to pay tribute. Not only was the show a tribute to the life and music of Levon Helm, it was also billed as “a benefit to save the barn.” With a couple of exceptions [Dierks Bentley, Jakob Dylan], everyone who participated had some kind of personal musical connection with Levon Helm. Some date back to Levon’s time in The Band [Gregg Allman, Mavis Staples, Allen Touissaint, Howard Johnson and Roger Waters]. Others had participated in at least one of the Midnight Rambles held in Levon’s barn. There were musicians from different generations, not just a bunch of old geezers from the 60s and 70s singing “goodbye” to another fallen comrade. At times the old mingled with the new, as Roger Waters did with My Morning Jacket, Garth Hudson with Dierks Bentley, or Joe Walsh with Robert Randolph [big “thumbs up” for this one – this one smoked!].
There were two house bands to support the numerous guests – there was Levon Helm’s band, and there was the All Star Band. I'm not sure thof the motivation for this set-up, but it worked. In addition there was a horn section, like what supported The Band on The Last Waltz. There were a lot of people on stage at any given time, but the Rambles are like that.
The All Star Band – Larry Campbell – guitar, mandolin, fiddle, vocals / Amy Helm – vocals / Teresa Williams – vocals / Greg Leisz – guitar / Kenny Aronoff – drums / Don Was – bass / Brian Mitchell – keyboards
Levon’s Band - Larry Campbell – guitar, mandolin, fiddle, vocals / Amy Helm – vocals / Teresa Williams – vocals / Jim Weider – guitar / Justin Guip – drums / Byron Isaacs – bass / Brian Mitchell – keyboards
The Horns – Howard Johnson – tuba / Jay Collins [Amy Helm’s husband] – saxophone / Steve Bernstein – trumpet / Clark Gayton – trombone, tuba / Erik Lawrence - saxophone
The object of the exercise was to raise money to keep the barn in the Helm Family’s control, and to continue with the Midnight Rambles. It was Levon Helm’s wish to “keep it goin’.” To quote his website:
“More than anything, he wanted the music to continue. He wanted the barn to be host to artists from all walks of life, from all genres. He wanted children to learn from there. He wanted Rambles to continue. He didn't want a day to go by without some form of music being heard from within THESE walls. One of the more immediate challenges is financial; the need to generate income so that we can keep Levon's legacy moving forward.”
The good news –
1. Sheryl Crow was nowhere near this event.
2. John Mayer let his guitar do the talking [he didn’t sing]. IMHO, he plays better than he sings.
3. Garth Hudson plays the organ on Chest Fever.
4. I got this two-CD set for the price of one.
5. Eric Church – I had never heard him sing before. I must check out this guy’s work – he’s good!
6. Grace Potter – I have to check out her work, too.
7. Larry Campbell – he sings, he plays, he’s the emcee. He’s done a lot of work for others either as a musician, arranger or producer. He was Bob Dylan’s MVP for almost ten years, and has done a lot of work with Phil Lesh. Why doesn’t he have anything out under his own name? Maybe he wants it that way, or maybe he’s so busy working with others that he doesn’t have the time.
8. There is not a bad song in the bunch – it’s all good.
The bad news – Levon Helm is still dead. From the sound of things, he would have had a blast playing this event.
Tony’s favorites from the event – This Wheel’s On Fire, Tennessee Jed, Up On Cripple Creek, Move Along Train, A Train Robbery, The Shape I’m In, Long Black Veil, Ophelia
The song list:
The Shape I'm In [Stage Fright] – Warren Haynes
Long Black Veil [Music From Big Pink] – Gregg Allman & Warren Haynes
Trouble In Mind [Hot Tuna – Live at Sweetwater] – Jorma Kaukonen
This Wheel’s On Fire [Music From Big Pink] – Larry Campbell
Little Birds [Dirt Farmer] – Amy Helm & Theresa Williams
Listening To Levon [Marc Cohn – Join the Parade] – Marc Cohn
Move Along Train [Electric Dirt] – Mavis Staples
Life Is a Carnival [Cahoots] – Allen Touissaint
When I Paint My Masterpiece [Cahoots] John Prine & Garth Hudson
Anna Lee [Dirt Farmer] – Bruce Hornsby & Amy Helm
Ain’t Got No Home [Moondog Matinee] – Jakob Dylan
Whispering Pines [The Band] – Lucinda Williams
Rag Mama Rag [The Band] – John Hiatt
Don’t Do It [Rock of Ages] – David Bromberg & Joan Osbourne
I Shall Be Released [Music From Big Pink] – Grace Potter
Tears of Rage [Music From Big Pink] – Ray LaMontagne & John Mayer
Rockin’ Chair [The Band] – Dierks Bentley
Chest Fever [Music From Big Pink] – Dierks Bentley & Garth Hudson
A Train Robbery [Dirt Farmer] – Eric Church
Get Up Jake [The Band outtake] – Eric Church
Tennessee Jed [Electric Dirt] – Larry Campbell & John Mayer
Up on Cripple Creek [The Band] – Joe Walsh & Robert Randolph
Ophelia [Northern Lights-Southern Cross] – My Morning Jacket
It Makes No Difference [Northern Lights-Southern Cross] - My Morning Jacket
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down [The Band] - My Morning Jacket & Roger Waters
Wide River To Cross [Dirt Farmer] – Roger Waters & Amy Helm
The Weight [Encore] [Music From Big Pink] - Everybody
Bottom line – this is an excellent recording of an excellent show. I can’t speak for the DVD of the show, but I might get it as well if for nothing else than to catch the between-song banter that’s left off the CDs [Roger Waters’ story about Levon’s hat was especially poignant]. It’s got the same feel as Levon’s Ramble at the Ryman. If you like one, get the other – you won’t be disappointed.