Appreciation for the music of our youth has taken on an anthropological flavor with opulent buildings in Los Angeles, Seattle and Cleveland attempting to bottle the magic and put it up for display.
Those seeking a musical excursion can visit one of these edifices for a glimpse of the past stuck in amber, or they can get close to an authentic living monument by participating in one of Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles, which he hosts most weeks in the converted barn adjacent to the Woodstock, NY house in which he has lived for more than 40 years.
Out in the world we see the see a diminishing cast of characters playing sheds and casinos, performing the same set of songs that people just don’t get tired of hearing. Helm. 71, operates in reverse. Touring is hard enough for the young-uns, and he did it for most of his youth. Today, he has the fans come to him.
I attended a Ramble in April, sitting six feet from Helm whom I last saw with the Band playing hundreds of feet back. This isn’t a trip that most people have the time or money to take. I coughed up the $150 admission and traveled across the country to be there, so I paid dearly. Even so I felt privileged to be there, witnessing a show that cannot be repeated, because every week boasts a different combination.
Helm played drums and was one of the three compelling singers for The Band, which Last Waltzed at full strength in 1976. Today’s audiences don’t have a clue of their power and talent, and Helm doesn’t try to chase the genie back into the bottle. Still, he presents a look at history reimagined in an intimate environment that you can’t get anywhere else.
At these events Helm and a varied cast of characters whip through two hours of rock, blues and whatever seems to strike their fancy at the time. It is like watching a very good bar band up close, except there is no liquor or misbehaving patrons. Some of these folks might still stand up and yell requests at a large show, but here they are unerringly polite. In other places you might stick gum under the seat, here even the guys put the toilet seat down.
The manners aren’t spontaneous as they are clued in by a long list of rules on the web site. No smoking, of course. The shows start and end on schedule, and there are no cameras or open cell phones allowed. No one violated this particular edict, it is one thing to flout corporate authority but another to violate someone’s household rules.
Helm’s fluid band seldom rehearses, they have some idea where they are going with each song, but with a rotating cast of characters there is a constant unpredictable element. On my night Jimmy Vivino was the titular bandleader. The guy in sweats blowing a harmonica turned out to be John Sebastian, while blues veteran Hubert Sumlin was just passing though town and played four songs with the band.
Sumlin, who died in December, was tethered to an oxygen tank, which restricted his mobility but nevertheless managed some searing guitar solos.
Helm, recovered from throat cancer, can’t sing much anymore and his only solo was a croaked out verse of “The Weight.” He didn’t act like a bandleader, since everything seemed equal and was simply a group of friends having a good time.
Which makes these Rambles a perfect storm that benefits a certain segment of the audience who can allow the artist a little latitude and don’t need to hear the old songs as they were first recorded. For many of them the $150 ticket price is just the beginning, as Woodstock is not all that close to where most people are but they come. At my show, several people had coincided visited to their parents or a business trip to stop in and see the show.
As we get older concerts don’t hold our interest. The cost, crowds and the commute make it a more attractive option to stay home and watch a video of, say, The Last Waltz. Helm’s Rambles offer added value and close contact, and deserves a place on any well-heeled Band fan’s bucket list.
Woodstock, NY is about 100 miles of New York City and is accessible from the Kingston or Saugerties exits of the New York State Thruway. You know you’re in the right place when you come up Route 28 and see a giant Levon Helm billboard advertising the Ramble.