Saturday, December 31, 2011

Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble

Where do I even begin? I guess I’ll start with some background info on Levon Helm. For those who don’t know, Levon was the drummer/singer for The Band (famously known as being Bob Dylan’s back-up band before going out on their own and becoming one of the most influential bands of the 60s & 70s). Both Dylan and the members of the band spent most of their time during these years in or around Woodstock, NY and a few stayed there long-term, Levon being one.

The drive from our hotel to Levon’s home/site of the Midnight Ramble was about 20 minutes. We went back on this dirt road, in the dark and we thought, “How in the world will we ever find it?” But once we got close, we could spot it immediately. Levon’s beautiful barn was all lit up, people we talking and music was playing. We pulled in, gave our names and off we were. We had some beers and stopped in Levon’s General Store—this is where his merchandise is sold and the food is set out. It’s like one big party with people you’ve never met before. The dinner was a potluck; I brought a ramen slaw & received lots of compliments which made me happy! Kev bought a poster and I bought a sticker to add to my collection (I’m now kicking myself for not buying a poster as well).
Since we had standing room only tickets, we decided to get in line a little early so we could find our “spot.” We made friends with the two couples in front of us, one lived in Boston and the other is from the North Hills of Pittsburgh! Such a small world it is. Both couples were awesome—we talked beer, food and of course music. Finally the doors opened and we were greeted by big security men who had big smiles on their faces. We ran upstairs and found a great spot along the banister right up from the drums. The loft above and behind the stage was definitely the closest, but I was too set on being able to see their faces. It ended up being perfect. To me, the only better spot would have been front row seats (which were reserved for special guests so that was a no-go anyway).
Just like any show, the lights got dim and the audience got quiet. Barbara O’Brien, Levon’s manager and host of the Midnight Ramble got on stage and told us we were in for a treat, “Tonight is going to be the most over the top Ramble we have ever had.” She sure knows how to get a crowd going—but she was not lying.

A big reason we chose to go to this Ramble, was because of the opening band, Dawes. I first discovered Dawes a little over a year ago, and just in that short time they have progressed as a band in ways some bands who have been together 10 years don’t even understand. I was kind of mad at myself because I looked at their entire set list before they began to play, but once I saw one of my favorite songs listed I just couldn’t help myself. Dawes played “A Little Bit of Everything” AND “How Far We’ve Come,” in addition to a few others including a Band cover and their most popular “When My Time Comes.” They were absolutely perfect. Dawes is far and few between when it comes to new music. They have that old-school Laurel Canyon/LA feel and they play simply because they love to play music. They are genuine, beyond talented and so respectful. During their set, Taylor Goldsmith told a story of when they first started as a band. He said “We were making a list of goals for us as a band, and one of those was playing at this here Ramble.” After their fourth song, out comes Jackson Browne. Dawes has been Jackson’s backup band and just the day before they performed at NYC’s Occupy Wall Street together. Jackson didn’t play any of his own songs; he did however perform a song that he wrote for another band. “Take It Easy” began and it was one big sing-along. Jackson wanted to show that he was there for the experience and to support Dawes and Levon—not to show off his talents.
The next set was about to start and in walks Jimmy Vivino. Jimmy is the musical director and leader of the band for Conan O’Brien’s show, and man is he a talent. I sort of knew who he was, but I was completely blown away. He is an artist, storyteller and a loyal friend to many. His set was special because he did a tribute to Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, both original members of The Band. He shared stories about Richard and mostly Ricky, to the point where I thought that I actually knew them. Jimmy invited a special person on stage… The Band’s Garth Hudson. I don’t think Garth said more than 5 words but they were not needed. He blew everyone away with his continued piano skills and added his own special touch to each song.

Before we knew it, in comes Levon and his band. He just stared and smiled at the entire crowd. It felt like he was personally looking at each and every person and saying thank-you. The crowd was going wild. People were screaming, smiling and just staring in awe at this wonderful legend standing before us.

Another guest joined Levon’s band—Donald Fagen from Steely Dan. He did a mixture of Grateful Dead, The Band and his own Steely Dan songs. At this point I wasn’t expecting any more surprises and I definitely had no idea what I was about to experience. Jackson came back on and sang “Up on Cripple Creek,” his choice of song. Levon sang “Ophelia,” which is probably my favorite Band song. I wasn’t expecting him to be singing at all due to his throat cancer, but he shocked us all when we heard “Boards on the window, mail by the door, why would anybody leave so quickly for, Ophelia,” coming straight from LEVON! It was like a dream. The entire set was a dream. By far the most memorable part of the night was the last song, “The Weight.” All of the artists got on stage, between the singers and musicians there must have been at least 20 people up there. Levon yelled out to Jackson to take the first verse, which he willingly did. Taylor from Dawes shared the mic with Jackson and the other members were spread across the stage. The entire song was one big sing-along, but the last verse was by far the best. I also need to point out how incredibly talented Levon’s band is. It is lead by Larry Campbell and features Larry’s wife, Theresa Williams and Levon’s daughter, Amy Helm. What a power this trio gives off.

I didn’t it want it to come to an end, but I knew I just had one of the best musical experiences of my life. I felt like I was Levon’s friend… like he called me up and invited me to a small get together. That’s certainly what it felt like considering there were probably less than 200 people there. And how in the heck did I get so lucky to pick the most “over the top Ramble ever?” I stared out onto the stage a little longer just to take it all in. Again, it was like a dream.

I knew it was time to go, I put on my coat, turned around and looky, looky what I got:
That’s right, the set list. Before the show started I was talking to a nice man about my love for set lists. He won tickets to the Ramble from the local Woodstock radio station and just like us, he was a Ramble first-timer. At the end of the show, I turn around to leave and he is standing behind me holding out a copy. I immediately thought, “How did he get this??” Then it crossed my mind, could this actually be for me? When he handed it over I screamed like a little girl and gave him a huge hug. A man from the crew was watching this all happen, came over, gave me a hug and said he just wanted to tell me how happy he was that I enjoyed the show and have such love & respect for Levon and his musical family.

And if that wasn’t the perfect end to a perfect weekend, I’ll show you what is:

I met Griffin and Tay fro Dawes! And these nice boys let me sneak in a picture. Pretty awesome, right?

Woodstock is the best place for this Ramble. The entire community makes you feel at home and Levon and his people were no different. Even if you don’t love The Band (but how can you not?)but you have a love for music, especially live music, you need to make it to a Ramble. It will change your life in some way I can promise you that. One of my goals for 2012 is to get back to that Ramble—and I’m pretty sure I can make that happen.

Stay tuned for more on the town of Woodstock, NY!


  1. HI Katie. Thanks for having a read of my Ramble post and for leading me back to yours. I think you did a great job capturing the night, too. And what a great night it was ... you couldn't ask for anything more from a first Ramble, eh? I went to three last year ... I'll be back for more in 2012. Maybe I will see you there. Cheers, Judd

  2. p.s. thanks for the set-list. I forgot to grab one on the way out.

  3. What a great thing to do for new years! My boyfriend surprised me with tickets to a Ramble in January 2008, featuring Levon with Sammy Davis Jr. and Medeski, Martin & Wood. So much fun to be so close to such legends! We keep talking about going again, thanks for the encouragement to do so! :)

  4. Katie,I have attended dozens of Levons shows and this was second only to Levons 70th B-Day bash at MJX. Dawes band member said that my passion at the show overwhelmed them and they wanted to recreate that feeling with their music.
    I will be back at the Barn August 18, 2018 for Jackson Brown and Midnight Ramble Band
    and everyone should catch the inaugural Dirt Farmer Festival August 19 in Accord NY