The ceilings are vaulted like a cathedral. But the excitement of show time generated by the aroma of hot-buttered popcorn trumps any thoughts of Sunday morning Mass.
Hundreds assemble to reflect and rejoice, bask in joy and embrace collective grief.
The sparkling red drum kit on stage left maintains links to a storied past that redefined rock and roll. But the instrument that was played with precision and passion by a giant of modern music also stands as a symbol of all that could still take shape inside Levon Helm Studios.
At the foot of the Catskill Mountains, down an unassuming driveway that winds through woods, Saturday night unfolds in Woodstock, New York. Grab a bag of popcorn from the popcorn machine over by the double doors. Take your seat. And watch in wonder as the Midnight Ramble begins.
Nearly two months after Levon Helm died of cancer, the live music venue he created in his home, where friends, fans and family have enjoyed performances inspired by the traveling minstrel shows he saw as a child in Arkansas, is in full swing.
The Midnight Ramble house concerts that grew out of Helm’s vision for live music in his home-studio had so much propulsion, so much momentum, that his spirit carries on in his absence, generating smiles but also leaving a gaping hole, reminding everyone that there will never again be a man or musician like Levon Helm.
The song selection at the June 9, 2012, Midnight Ramble embodied much of what Helm represented when it came to music – few boundaries regarding genre, pure soul and songs straight from the heart. Tradition reigns supreme at the Midnight Ramble, and everyone, performer and audience member alike, undergoes a religious renewal on Saturday night.
“Levon,” Helm’s manager, Barbara O’Brien, told the crowd during her traditional Midnight Ramble welcome, “never wanted a moment to go by when there wasn’t music resonating from these walls.”
The night began with a set from The Dirt Farmer Band, an ensemble featuring Levon Helm Band members Amy Helm – Levon’s daughter – who sings and plays mandolin; multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Larry Campbell; his wife, guitarist and vocalist Teresa Williams; and bass player and vocalist Byron Isaacs. Justin Guip played drums in Levon’s stead.
The Dirt Farmer Band – which debuted May 26, on what would have been Helm’s 72nd birthday, at the first Ramble after his death – takes its name from Helm’s 2007 CD, a comeback record that was fueled by the success of the Midnight Rambles and which won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album – the first of three consecutive solo Grammys Helm won.
The Dirt Farmer Band celebrated a lot of what Dirt Farmer means to Levon Helm Studios by performing two songs from the CD – “Poor Old Dirt Farmer,” a bouncy tune about the travails of farming and “Little Birds,” which showcased Campbell’s from-the-gut fiddle playing and the harmonic heights to which Amy Helm and Williams soar to repeatedly, that place in the sonic atmosphere to which they bring the entire room.
“Levon learned this from his father,” Campbell told the crowd about “Little Birds.” “Now, he’s passed it on to Amy.”
The Midnight Ramble tradition of welcoming guests on stage figured into the evening, with Levon’s old friend, Happy Traum, sitting in with The Dirt Farmer Band and Tara Nevins from Donna the Buffalo performing later in the evening with members of the Levon Helm Band. The second set of music featured a five-piece horn section that included on tuba and baritone saxophone Howard Johnson, an old friend of Helm’s who performed on The Band’s Rock Of Ages record.
But setting the tone for the entire night was the song with which The Dirt Farmer Band opened their set. Amy Helm sang “Rivers Of Babylon” with a vigor and fire that penetrated every corner of the room – along with every head and every heart. That is the spirit that carried the night, and which continues to propel the Midnight Ramble.
“He wanted this thing to breathe music … to create as much music as possible,” Amy Helm says. “I think the room just calls for it, it’s thirsty for it. It feels right to be playing and it feels right to try to continue his vision and his spirit of celebration.”
The Midnight Ramble was, and continues to be, unlike any musical event most people have seen.
“Everyone was there to have a good time and hear good music,” says Helm’s wife, Sandy. “And then to have Levon in the mix, it was just too good to be true.”
Sharing in the celebration was Dave Parker, 24, of Canton, New York, who drove about five hours from his home near the Canadian border to attend his third Ramble.
The one thing that really grabbed him about his past Rambles was, “Just the atmosphere of feeling like I was at home. I had a really good time when I came. I had fun and it’s something that will stay with me forever.”
Joe Molinaro 57, of Jeffersonville, New York, attended his first Ramble in June. Asked why he came, Molinaro said he loved Levon and his music and The Band. Asked what he loved about Levon, Molinaro paused before speaking,
“He had a certain soul,” Molinaro says. “He had a certain pureness and he loved the music. He was really about the music and doing the music right.”
Helm had a wide reach, on and off the stage. He stood for something very special to strangers like Molinaro, people who never met him. And he indulged in the magic of making music with those who shared the stage with him.