WOODSTOCK, NY—Try to remember the last time you went to a see a band at Giants Stadium. Remember all the people? Remember how far you had to walk from the parking lot and how far your expensive seats were from the stage? Remember how bad the sound was?
Now try to picture the exact opposite of that situation, and you may begin to get an idea of what Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble is all about. It is quite simply an extraordinary musical event. The Ramble is held in a studio which is attached to Helm’s house in Woodstock. You are quite literally welcomed into the legendary drummer’s home for an evening of superb music in a most intimate setting.
When he created Midnight Ramble, Helm was inspired by the southern medicine shows of his youth. Since it began in 2004, he has invited some of the greatest musicians in the world to take part, and guests have included former Band-mate Garth Hudson, Rickie Lee Jones, Dr. John, Emmylou Harris, Donald Fagen, Warren Haynes, Allen Toussaint and many others.
The Ramble is held every Saturday night that Helm is in town and was originally started as a way to keep the wolf from the door. The house that Helm built in the ’70s, and rebuilt after a fire in the ’90s, was threatened with foreclosure, and the Ramble was created in an effort to make sure that this very special property didn’t fall into the wrong hands. Set on 16 acres, with a three acre lake, and signs warning you to watch out for bears, this is exactly the sort of rustic spread that you would expect the former Band drummer to occupy. It’s not exactly Big Pink in appearance, but it certainly retains the spirit of that nearby shrine.
There are generally two opening bands, and on this evening the Vermont-based Bow Thayer And Perfect Train Wreck were making their second Ramble appearance. They thrilled the audience with their brand of beautifully played and sung Americana. The band has recently released an album featuring a guest appearance by Helm.
Next up was the Alexis P. Suter Band, which has appeared at nearly every Ramble. Led by Suter’s powerful vocals, this is a top notch classic R&B band. Their set included deep soul covers of Gladys Knight’s “Imagination” and The Beatles’ “Come Together.”
The Levon Helm Band, joined on this night by guitarist Jimmy Vivino of the Max Weinberg Seven, began their set with a two song knockout punch of early rock and roll, “Slippin’ And Slidin” and “Rock n’ Roll Shoes,” before segueing into The Band classic “Ophelia.” It should be noted that Helm, who was unable to sing for a few years as a result of throat cancer, has a better voice than ever. His drumming style remains unique and immediately identifiable.
The nearly two hour set included vocal highlights from blues legend Little Sammy Davis, Teresa Williams, Vivino (a particularly powerful performance of “Tears Of Rage”), keyboard player Brian Mitchell, and a special guest appearance by Imus sidekick Rob Bartlett. Nothing could compare, however, with the sound of Levon Helm singing classic Band songs like “Rag Mama Rag,” “W.S. Walcott Medicine Show,” and the evening’s closer, “The Weight.”
The Levon Helm Midnight Ramble will remind you of how great an evening of music can be. It brings to mind an earlier time when music meant everything, when life was simpler and more joyous. It will soothe your soul while it stirs your heart. I can’t recommend it highly enough.