levon helm’s midnight ramble with grace potter and the nocturnals

January 11, 2010

Update on April 16th from Levon’s website :

Dear Friends,
Levon is in the final stages of his battle with cancer. Please send your prayers and love to him as he makes his way through this part of his journey.

Thank you fans and music lovers who have made his life so filled with joy and celebration… he has loved nothing more than to play, to fill the room up with music, lay down the back beat, and make the people dance! He did it every time he took the stage…

We appreciate all the love and support and concern.
From his daughter Amy, and wife Sandy

My wife and I shared two of the most magical evenings of music of our life at Levon’s house. I got to take my musical nut of a son to see Levon play in Woodstock, VT last summer which truly meant a lot to me. I know many of you reading this were at some of those shows.

Here’s a re-post of my writeup from the evening the Grace Potter and the Nocturnals opened the show. Also for reference is Van’s review as well as one from David Schultz.

Keeping in touch with the things that help us feel alive – music, books, movies, even the theatre, if, mysteriously, you are that way inclined – becomes a battle, and one that many of us lose, as we get older; I don’t think enough of our cultural pundits, people who write about that stuff for a living, fully understand this.

Nick Hornby

As we left Woodstock, NY on Sunday morning after a transcendent evening at The Ramble this thought, or at least my more muddled non-Nick-Hornby version of it, kept running through my head. We’re all getting older. For some of us it will take awhile to get there – others can see it right there on the horizon. We live about two hours away from Woodstock and I’ve been hearing about The Ramble for years now yet I’ve never managed to commit to going – until now. Thanks then go out to Grace Potter and the Nocturnals for creating a little structure in my life that finally pushed me to make it happen. To those of you who’ve thought about going but have made the same mistake that I have for years, the inability to commit – please fix your mistake now. Go.

We have a two and a half hour drive through the small towns of the Catskills ahead of us and we put on Levon’s “Electric Dirt”. The music, a heady blend of rock, funk, soul and Appalachia, seems perfect for the region especially as we curve around the Pepacton Reservoir on Route 30. No cars, no structures for at least 20 miles. We arrive in Woodstock with the car covered in muddy slush, check in to our streamside hotel and wander around town. Funky shops trading on the hippie history abound as well as artist co-ops, the famous Center for Photography at Woodstock and the retail outlet for Bread Alone whose award winning cookbook I have used for over 15 years.

We head out for a meal at the vegetarian Garden Café on the Woodstock green. Our hearts had risen when we looked at the menu online a few days back but our expectations were lowered when we walked into the small restaurant with mis-matched and nearly broken tables and chairs. Oh for omens! I can happily report that the meal was one of the best veggie dinners I can recall. Subtle flavorings, interesting mixes. We leave at about 5:50 fully sated and gently floating on multiple Malbec’s.

The GPS borrowed from my brother guides us to Plochman lane and I must be four cars back from Van based on our eventual places in line. Arriving you feel as if you’re part of a ritual, one with specific rites and customs. The difference is – the people who run this ritual want to include you. When I answer the question “Your first time here?” at the gate with a simple, “Yes”, I’m greeted with a huge smile and the prophetic phrase, “You’re gonna love it.” My wife jumps out of the car to secure a marginally closer place in line just behind Van who is halfway up the stairs as I park the car.

When the door is open I ask the security guy to point me to the best place to stand closest to the stage. The first few rows are reserved for friends of Levon and his crew so we’re pointed to the balcony behind the band. We end up on the rail about 10 feet from Levon and directly above the horn section. Fantastic, we’ll spend the next five and a half hours here.

Little Sammy Davis & Fred Scribner open the show with a short set of acoustic harmonica blues. Fred scrambles to find harmonica’s in the correct key before each tune. Sammy eventually plays whatever Fred hands him and delivers a sweet soulful set.

The house is packed, I mean packed. When you hear the phrase “people hanging from the rafters” you get some idea of how crowded it was. We hear that they’ve sold more tickets to this show than any other Ramble based on Grace Potter fans calling them up and begging for more seats. You can feel something in the air, expectation? Certainly a sense that you were about to share in something special.

The Nocs simply walk to stage, as is the tradition for the Ramble. No big intros or buildup – just musicians there to do what they do best. Matt’s face is three kinds of happy as he sits down at Levon’s kit and as the first strains of “Joey” come out we settle in for a fantastic 60 minute set of classic GPN. The sound in this building is pristine and the equipment is state of the art. The music seems to live in the room and the Nocs respond with one of the best “musical” sets I’ve seen from them. Grace’s vocal delivery is perfect, especially on “Long Low Road”. From my position I see head nodding approval on hundreds of faces and an explosion of appreciation at the end. A recognition (validated afterwards) that lots of people who’d only heard of GPN or seen them at a recent summertime festival knew that they were seeing “the real deal”. Scott can’t find his harmonica during “Goodbye Kiss” and has to improvise guitar parts over his normal harp solos (I think only a very few people in the crowd had any idea).

The acapella opener to “NBTW” was, as reported elsewhere, a stunner. Grace responded to the quiet in the room by bringing the vocal down even more to a soft low whisper at points. When the band breaks into “Feel Like Making Love” for the encore a look of recognition glides across faces in the crowd and an impromptu sing along to the chorus takes off along with the addition of hundreds of voices to the simple harmonies. Benny stands stage front and lays down a solo that he was born to do – on his birthday even. A perfect end to a stellar set.

The crowd quickly abandons their seats to check to make sure that their cars in the parking lot remain safe before settling back in for the headliner.

Levon and the band stroll in from the sides and take their places behind their respective instruments. Levon’s simple smile lights up the room – completely. If you know this man, his history, his music at all – just watching him sit down at his drum set and flash that grin brings enough emotional heat to make you forget about the logistics of being here, the close to zero weather, everything. They kick into “Shape I’m In” as an opener and I’m gone into the zone. I think of all those legendary rock bands who you would have loved to see in their prime. The Stones, The Beatles, Zeppelin, Dylan, but here we have something else. A guy whose music helped define Americana. Who wrote and vocalized tunes that are still part of the soundtrack of my life and here I am, in his house for god sakes. It’s like a personal invitation to validate the love, effort and money I’ve spent on music for over 30 years and I take it and absorb it. Could you imagine Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney asking you over to their house to hear some music? No? Me neither. Yet here we are in a musical mecca in the hills of Woodstock and I feel like Levon’s doing this for me.

The setlist and delivery is unbelievable. Levon manages vocals on “Tennessee Jed”. We get “Long Black Veil”, “Attics of My Life” and a host of other tunes as the music and vocals mesh as they can only with a band who “feels” it they way everyone on stage does. The horn section is, well, the horn section is off the charts good. At one point they look at us basically hanging over their heads and say “are you getting enough tuba?”

The band has twenty one songs on the setlist and each one adds new layers and highlights. The night closes by knocking it out of the musical park not once but three times. The sad wail of “Makes No Difference” which ends with

Well I love you so much. That’s all I can do.
Just to keep myself from tellin’ you
That I’ve never felt so alone before.

Puts me over the emotional edge for the evening (and right now recalling it). Finally we get “Chest Fever” to blow it out and the Nocs onstage during “The Weight”. Grace takes the first lyric with Matt beside her on stage. I’m fairly convinced that he’s floating about three inches above the carpet – as we all are. Floating.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 owllover January 11, 2010 at 11:27 am

I’d give my right arm of they’d release a DVD of this night!! somehow, I don’t think this is in our future..and honestly, that’s the way it should be. Thank you to those who have put into words what an incredible, special night this was. I could read it over and over!

2 Johnny January 11, 2010 at 12:11 pm

A DVD. or Blu-Ray would b awesome of this show.. I really have to make it to one of the rambles soon.. I can see Grace having her own rambles one day.

3 toofarnorth January 11, 2010 at 12:18 pm

you are an eloquent and elegant writer when you choose to be KC . . so very glad you went – especially for you – also for us . . your deep love of music and appreciation for the magic of the night made this a very special read . .
inadequate words but all I have — Thank you.

4 music maven January 11, 2010 at 12:19 pm

I’ve been contemplating (alot) what you very aptly describe in the intro of this post. I LOVE music. Always have. I LOVE live music. Always have. However, “real” world responsibilities including work, bills, soccer mom duties, etc., often preclude me from heading down to the music festival or late night “gigs”. My live music participation has to be carefully planned and scripted and in the end, usually don’t happen because of that very fact. However, when I do follow through with plans, it has ALWAYS been magical.

I can’t imagine this environment, hearing this musical purity, and experiencing the passion and personal connection, firsthand. Makes me think that I need more planning and scripting to make more “events”. Of course, a ramble is likely out of the question since I am thousands of miles away, but you never know. Following your passions definitely takes dedication and the one thing about being older and “affording more insurance” than younger cohorts is that funds are more readily available and chasing rainbows a bit more acceptable.

Ramble on.

5 David K. Golden January 11, 2010 at 12:39 pm

It was a special night from every perspective, and while I can honestly say I’ve seen hotter performances from GPN, I can’t say I’ve ever seen them at a time and place that I have enjoyed more. The intimacy of the setting, the good vibes from the staff, the positive reactions from the crowd (those there for GPN and those there for Levon), the comraderie created by the pot luck offerings in the food and merch room all combined for a fantastic evening.

My single favorite non-musical moment of the night was Grace’s little valley girl moment. Grace remarked that the first time she heard of Levon Helm was in Matt’s living room in 2002. Matt had said, “I want to start a band with you.” and then showed a video of “The Last Waltz” and he said, “That’s the kind of band I want to start with you.” Grace said she replied, (in a perfect valley girl voice) “Okay.”

I enjoyed the Levon Helm band more than any other time that I had seen them. I’ve been a fan of Larry Campbell since I first saw him play with Dylan in the 90′s. The vocal counter balance between Teresa Williams and Amy Helm was outstanding, and Teresa, on her gospel number, performed with a ferocity that I had never seen from her before. Finally, when GPN joined the Levon Helm Band for “The Weight” it appeared (I had trouble seeing at this point) that Cat had taken over on bass.

In the 35 years that I have been attending Rock and Roll shows I may have had as good a time, but I can’t say that I have had better.

6 Todd January 11, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Thanks for taking us there!

7 Tedheadone January 11, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Amen, Mojo. Couldn’t have said it better myself. And I tried..

8 browneheather January 11, 2010 at 3:50 pm

love it. thanks for writing this, and here’s to keeping in touch with those things.

9 Karen January 11, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Just imagining what’s described here, in Van’s review, and reader comments truly swells the heart with like feelings and much gratitude for this window on all of it.

10 Bostonone January 11, 2010 at 6:29 pm

Thank You for letting us in like this. I have watched The Black Crowes dvd recorded in this same hallowed ground, and can only imagine seeing GPN and Levon just do their thing. Levon is truly a one of a kind…as you said, who else opens up there home for a show and invites whoever wants to be there for it..gotta love the man for that alone.

11 Kired January 11, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Great read KC, thanks so much for sharing the remembrance of a night you so richly owed to yourself.

12 Mallory January 11, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Hey, great review of the show! I was also there…it was my first ramble as well. We traveled about 3 and 1/2 hours to go and it was well worth it! I think I’m still coming down from the amazing experience. Standing literally right about Levon Helm and listening to the amazing music was honestly one of the highlights of my life. The Nocs made the night so much better. It’s so great to listen to real music, played in the most raw setting. So intimate and so great!!! Thanks for writing this review!!

13 Wally January 12, 2010 at 9:08 am

I’d be willing to bet a buck, that Levon records all these happenings. He just doesnt publish them, at least not yet. There is a “Meryl Fest Ramble” out on CD and PBS did a “Levon Helm-Ramble at the Ryman” so the creation of media to document these once-in-a-lifetime experiences is a given. We may or may not ever see or hear any of this, but we can always hope. And even if it never comes to pass, I can always come back here and re-read the writeups from Van and Doug to try a grasp the feelings they had and hope I someday get to experience something similar.

14 Tedheadone January 12, 2010 at 10:40 am

There was a video cam and mics right over my head. The show was ” closed circuit” broadcast on a flat screen downstairs in the merch/community room, and I’d guess it also played up in Levon’s living room. But it won’t play in anyone else’s anytime soon…I’d guess.

15 Karl January 14, 2010 at 12:29 pm

After seeing the Black Crowes at the ramble last year I didnt think it could get any better but GPN put on a show that will not be forgotten. The best part was everyone came out to watch Levon’s band and hung out with crowd. I was able to meet Grace after the show and had a nice conversation. Come back soon !!
Does anyone know who the photographer was ? I beleive her name may have been a Debbie.

16 Tricia D September 23, 2010 at 3:51 pm

Really enjoyed how you described your experience at the Ramble. My husband and I are going for the first time October 9th have standing room only tickets. So it sounds like to arrive at 6pm is early enough to get a good spot to stand? We saw Levon this Spring in New Hampshire and we were amazed. So excited for this experience. Thanks for any advice ?

17 caryl April 17, 2012 at 5:03 pm

I remember reading this the first time. Lovely. This time it’s obviously bittersweet to read but I’m grateful you took the time to get the experience down in words. So nice.

so sad

18 Karen April 17, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Got the news first via tfn’s Twitter feed. It made me think immediately of this post and how glad I was for kc that he had followed his impulse, and also that he shared the experience with us. The next thoughts were sadness for Levon’s family, and regret that there will be no more rambles (at least not with him present).

I looked this up and offer the link as a tribute to the man. In my mind there is irony in the title “The Right Stuff” and in the concept of breaking the sound barrier.

Levon Helm narrating and playing the part of Jack Ridley in this scene: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cE2t6Sg_H74

19 snowbird April 17, 2012 at 7:07 pm

Another fine gentleman I knew personally passed on yesterday. I cannot help but know that he’d love this song from Levon’s Electric Dirt CD:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEf-YAaBalE&feature=related

bound for glory, in the morning when i go away, and then the sun’s gonna shine through the shadows when I go away. Don’t want no sorrow, Don’t want no crying, only tears of joy . . .

thank you so very much for re-posting this today.

20 gordiej April 17, 2012 at 7:42 pm

Took advantage of a chance encounter with Grace in the Summer of 2010 to tell her my opinion that of all the milestones she’d achieved to that point, the band’s invitation to “Ramble” had to have been the coolest.
And even with the many high profile opportunities and accolades that have come since, I’m not sure I’m ready to change my mind.

21 toofarnorth April 17, 2012 at 8:02 pm

I almost didn’t want to read this again, but remembered how beuatifully you captured the magic of a Ramble and knew it would bring a smile to this sad day.

There are many, many videos of Levon on YT, but I seem to have fixated on this one with Levon singing the opening lines of “I Shall Be Released” …
http://youtu.be/jleCu2x_meU
” 8.1.10 @ Newport Folk Festival 2010 with Richie Havens, Cory Chisel, The Low Anthem, Dawes, Pokey LaFarge, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, The Felice Brothers, Elvis Perkins and others…”

22 eric April 18, 2012 at 10:09 am

This thread is a great tribute to Levon. Jules and I were at his house just 2 weeks ago for the Ramble with Los Lobos. Levon looked pretty frail but was smiling the whole time, and still very much on point behind the drums. We thought we were lucky to see him then, as he cancelled his show the night before because he “threw out his back”. Obviously now I realize how truly lucky we were to make it up there for one of his last public performances. crazy…prayers and best wishes to Levon and his family

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