Saturday, March 20, 2010

Road Trip: Woodstock & Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble

Levon Helm, copyright Paul La Raia

We’re back from the road. The high point of our trip was the performance by The Levon Helm Band at the Midnight Ramble on Saturday night. Held at Levon’s studio, the sound was terrific and the atmosphere intimate. If my seat had been much closer to the stage, I’d have been IN the band.

Upon arriving in Woodstock, NY on a cold and rainy Saturday morning, our first mission was to find Big Pink, the house where much of the material for The Band’s first album was written. Located on Parnassus Lane, in the shadow of Overlook Mountain, it was the house they rented and retreated to just outside Woodstock after their first tour with Bob Dylan as his backup band — the tour where Dylan went electric and the crowds booed when the electric guitars appeared during the second half of his shows. The basement of Big Pink was where The Band rehearsed and worked out new material, where Dylan would show up daily to write and play, and where the often bootlegged Basement Tapes were recorded.

Big Pink, copyright 2010 by Dory Adams

Big Pink looks much the same today as it did in the old photos. And yes, it’s still pink, though faded to a more muted hue. We photographed the house from the lane, trying to be unobtrusive and respectful of the current owners. Much to our surprise, the owner opened an upstairs window and chatted with us for a few minutes, welcoming us into his yard to get better shots of the house.

In the village of Woodstock, we visited the local cemetery where Rick Danko is buried. The last cars from a funeral were departing through the gates as we arrived. Driving slowly along the road past the back section, we scanned the names on tombstones before deciding Danko’s must be one of the flat stones that we couldn’t see clearly. It was too rainy and muddy to walk the section row by row looking for his headstone, but one of the grave diggers graciously walked over to show us the gravesite, saying, “I knew that was who you were looking for.” Danko is buried next to his son, who died nearly a decade before him. Tokens left at the graves – two small peace signs cut from paper, a scripture card, and three small stones placed on Rick’s headstone – indicated there had been recent visitors.

Rick Danko's Grave, copyright 2010 by Dory Adams

During the afternoon when the rain eased to a mist, we took a brief walk along Tinker Street, the main street through the village. Our intention was to visit the Center for Photography, but because a new exhibit was being hung the gallery was closed until the opening reception later that day. Instead, we stopped at Oriole 9 to shake off the chilly dampness with hot coffee and then we browsed at a bookshop where Kevin Tomasic bought us a copy of Across the Great Divide: The Band and America, which I’m now reading and enjoying – particularly the chapter I’m in the middle of now about Big Pink.

Saturday evening in the studio at Levon’s home on Plochmann Lane, a fire burned in the fireplace to warm the ramble guests while a storm raged outside bringing down trees and causing power failures a little further down the road. Not that we were paying attention to the storm. Rapt with the show, we were oblivious to the weather conditions. We only knew about the nearby damage and power outages because an announcement was made between sets about the storm damage with directions for which end of Plochmann Lane was still open and how to get back to the highway after the show. We were reassured that in the event of a power outage at the studio they were prepared with lanterns and the show would continue as an acoustic performance.

Studio, copyright Paul La Raia

The studio never lost electricity in the storm – possibly because so much power was generated onstage by Levon and his band. And what a band it is: Levon Helm (drums, mandolin, vocals) and his daughter Amy Helm (vocals, mandolin); Larry Campbell (guitar, fiddle, vocals) and his wife Teresa Williams (vocal, guitar); Jim Weider (guitar); Byron Isaacs (bass, vocals); Brian Mitchell (keyboards, vocals); and a 5-piece horn section adding a New Orleans R&B flavor with Jay Collins (saxophones), Erik Lawrence (saxophones), Howard Johnson (tuba), Steven Bernstein (trumpet), and Clark Gayton (trombone). Former bass player Mike Merritt, who was in the audience, also joined the band for a few songs.

After an opener by the Ulster County AOH Pipe and Drums Band in honor of St. Patrick’s Day and an acoustic set by Brewer and Shipley, we were treated to 2 ½ hours of music by The Levon Helm Band which included songs from Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt as well as songs from The Band era. Levon played drums through most of the show. I loved seeing the interaction between Levon and his daughter Amy on stage. Amy and Teresa’s voices blend beautifully on harmonies, and each took turns as lead vocalists on several songs. Larry Campbell, an extremely talented musician with an impressive history as a session player and producer, gave a strong performance at center stage (also notable for his gracious and down-to-earth demeanor). The horn section engaged in a little Mardi Gras parade around the studio, and later Levon showed off a few dance steps. Best of all, Levon’s vocal cords are healing and he was able to sing a few songs and join in on harmonies from what he calls the “best seat in the house” behind his drums, taking center stage only when he played mandolin and to do his little dance.

Levon Helm, copyright Paul La Raia

Despite the storm, it was a perfect night. I must’ve been grinning from ear to ear all evening because after the show Teresa Williams told me “I saw you out there smiling!” Yep. Couldn’t help it. It was an evening of pure joy and once-in-a-lifetime experience – except that I’m planning to go back for more.

Photo Credits:
  • Photographs of Levon Helm and the studio copyright © Paul La Raia, used by permission
  • Photographs of Big Pink and Rick Danko’s grave copyright © 2010 by Dory Adams

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Around the Blogosphere:
  • A Conversation with Philip Graham” by John Warner at The Morning News was especially interesting to me for the discussion of the low residency writing program at Vermont College, which is where I earned my MFA prior to when Phil Graham joined the faculty there. (thanks to Erika Dreifus pointing out this interview via Practicing Writing)
  • In “Future Saving Time” Robert Gray writes about ‘on time’ vs. ‘in sync’ at Shelf Awareness.

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Lauren B. Davis said...

Levon and Big Pink... I'm pea green, Dory. wonderful photos.

Dory Adams said...

Lauren, I wish I could be back there again today!

cynthia newberry martin said...

Wow, wow, wow. Talk about taking me back.

And thanks for that intimate look at Rick Danko's gravestone too.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

great story - thank you.
Glad to hear that there's still the good music.
I can see you smile ...

Siegfried, Germany

Dory Adams said...

Cynthia, we're already thinking about our next trip back.

Greetings Siegfried! The old music remains powerful with Levon's band taking it to a new level (particularly with the female vocals), and the new music is wonderful in its own right.

joel said...

enjoyed reading about your trip to Big pink and the Ramble. I know Levon must have been great but how was Brewer and Shipley??? I saw B&S at LIU gym in brooklyn --must have been around 1969-1970. It was one of the most magical concerts I ever went to... At least, what i can remember ! How were they?

Dory Adams said...

Joel, not knowing much about B&S except for hearing their big hit on the radio in the day -- I wasn't sure what to expect. Originally, Allison Moorer was scheduled to be the opener with the release of her new CD "Crows" and Steve Earle was going to be there with her. I'm a fan of both, so I was disappointed when they moved Allison's Ramble date up to February. (We were offered the option of exchanging our tickets for the February show, but we weren't able to make the trip at that time.) I was definitely at the Ramble to hear Levon and his band, but I was pleasantly surprised by Brewer & Shipley's opener.