Monday, November 10, 2008

Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble w/ Charlie Louvin 10/25/08

Admittedly, it's been quite difficult writing about my trip to Woodstock, NY to see rock legend and full-on American icon, Levon Helm, play practically in his living room during one of his famed Midnight Rambles. How does one sum up a truly amazing night of music? Not to mention seeing one of their formative musical heroes live and in the flesh, all while sharing this experience with only a handful of other folks? As Stark friend and Brooklyn musician Tim Emmerick put it, "it's the rare, once in a lifetime opportunity that you are able to experience more than once."

Full feature and photos of Levon's house after the jump...

Amidst the smell of wood smoke and in the middle of a raging nor' easter, myself, Emmerick and lawmaker Greg Regan, crammed into Helm's home studio for our second ever Midnight Ramble. This time the guest was Charlie Louvin, a full-blooded American icon in his own right. The country music legend played a heartwarming set of songs from the country/bluegrass cannon he has drawn from for more than 50 years. Always the consummate performer, Louvin charmed the audience with witty quips and lyrics about hell, damnation and yes, Satan.

Mr. Helm took to the stage a short time later accompanied by his daughter Amy, ace horn players Steven Bernstein and Erik Lawrence, and master of the musical universe, Larry Campbell. Campbell proved to be a damn virtuoso, dominating every instrument he touched. Sharing the vocal duties with nearly every member of the rotating 10-piece-band, Helm's set included classic Band originals, traditional blues and country songs, and tracks from his Grammy winning, 2007 record, Dirt Farmer.

The audience, comprised mostly of baby boomers, were there for the music. Respectful and focused, they added energy to the room. With the rare exception of the sleeveless and unruly dude in front of us (you know who you are ass), and the chatty, unsettled cast of Rescue Me, the audience knew what a treat it was to be there.

While the entire show provided countless musical peaks, including a full-on New Orleans blues stomp through the audience, the high point of the evening was its quietest moment. Sharing the stage with only Amy Helm, and Larry Campbell on violin, Helm offered a stunning rendering of the song "Anna Lee." Penned by Laurelyn Dossett, herself in the audience that evening, Helm strained under the emotion and power of the composition. It was a stark and poignant moment -- with Helm showing his age and fragility on the stage, yet somehow embodying the strength, power and authenticity that put him the annuls of American musical history. He has clearly earned his place next to his musical heroes Muddy Waters and the great blues musicians of a long-gone era.

What Levon Helm represents, what makes the Rambles so special, is that he is one of the last remaining connections to that lost generation of American musicians. Helm has transcended his place as the drummer for the Band -- he has become something more: A fading specter who has haunted the most vaunted homes of American music. He has played alongside the greatest musicians in the modern era. From ancient roadhouses in the 50s, to Bonnaroo in 2008 -- Helm has done it all, been everywhere, with everyone. Yet, he still pushes on, touring and playing. Some cite financial necessity, which may be valid; yet playing music is all Levon Helm knows how to do. Helm grew up, almost died, and now survives on the road. As visitors to Woodstock, the few audience members get to see that strange intersection of the road and home. What could be more glorious for an aging legend? He brings all the joy's of playing music on the road to his living room. Helm can display his passion, dedication and pure joy for music, leave everything on stage, then quietly retire to a rocking chair in his home, content in his position in the cannon of great American musicians.

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