Once a fan, always a fan: a report on the “most over the top” Levon Helm Midnight Ramble ever
“Tonight is going to be the most over the top Ramble we have ever had.”
Damn straight, Barbara. Damn straight.
That was the statement that Levon Helm’s manager and Midnight Ramble host, Barbara O’Brien, made when she kicked off the night’s festivities. I had already experienced the Ramble twice in 2011; I went back on 3rd December hoping that the third time would be a charm. It was.
I am from New Hampshire, but I now live in London, UK. I flew in specifically for each of the Rambles I attended this year. For the most recent one I flew in just for the weekend: landed in Boston on Thursday night and flew back to London on Sunday night. It is a long way to travel just for a gig, but this is not just a gig … it is a full-on, bow-down music experience.
My first Ramble was on 29th January, 2011. I wrote an exhaustive story detailing every bit of that experience [read it here]. That Sunday morning when I was pulling out of Woodstock I felt … satisfied. Attending a Ramble is like one massive exhale. Afterwards you feel exhausted and excited and then you start to feel a bit anxious: “I have to do that again!”
(“once you get it, you can’t forget it … “)
After my second Ramble [8th August] I had them old anxious-blues again and was looking for an excuse to get in the big bird and fly back to Woodstock, N.Y. to visit ol’ Levon and friends again. And then I found my it: Dawes.
In late October I received my handy Levon email newsletter. It told me that Dawes would be opening up for Levon at the 3rd December Midnight Ramble. Hot Damn! Dawes was the perfect band to play in Levon’s barn. If you know of Dawes, then you would agree with me and would know full-well why I immediately bought two tickets to that Ramble even before checking on international flights.
If you don’t know Dawes, watch this:
Okay, now you see what I mean. This band wears that old timely, band as a family, pass the jug, the music matters most ethos that permeated throughout the sweet-spot era in Laurel Canyon and up state New York way back when. As expected, Dawes were perfect for the Midnight Ramble. I’ll jump ahead in the story a bit here … before Dawes lit into the third song of their set, Taylor, the lead singer and guitarist and brother of drummer Griffin, said this to the audience: “when we first started out, our manager asked us what our goals were as a band. One of them was to play here at the Midnight Ramble.” And with that, he flashed a big shit-eating grin and they tore into the balls-out sing-a-long, “When My Time Comes.”
At one point or another we are all fans. We all start out as fans and then some fans make the jump from fan to musician, or whatever … professional chef, athlete, actor … whatever. But, once a fan, always a fan. That’s the beauty of it all … being a fan … you never lose that spark of what got you juiced enough to sing-a-long, follow the tour or to once and for all, pick up that guitar and start a strummin’.
Me and Dawes, we were both in Woodstock for the same reason: the experience that is the Ramble. The only difference is that they were playing and I wasn’t. You could see their fan-roots when they played and when they were hanging out during Levon’s band’s set and singing along with the rest of the packed house.
There were other fans in the room, too. At the outset of the night when Barbara made her proclamation of “greatest Ramble ever,” she also told us we were in for a few surprises that evening. She wasn’t lying. The shit hit the fan after Dawes completed the fourth song of their set, “Twilight“, a cover of a classic Band song: Jackson Browne came out on to the floor. Jackson and Dawes had been touring and recording together earlier this year. Seeing him come up with Dawes made sense, but still, it was a welcome surprise. The place erupted.
Jackson stepped up and said, “I have been looking for an excuse to find my way up to Woodstock to be a part of the Ramble and when I found out my friends Dawes were playing, I kinda pushed my way in. I have heard so much about the Ramble and so far it has been fantastic just to be witnessing it.” He was looking all around him, surrounded by fans in every direction, and he was smiling and mouthing the word, “wow,” over and over again.
See what I mean … we are all fans … we all want to get close … we all want to be a part of the gig.
Jackson went on to say, “Ok, now I am going to do some playing … I’m going to do another cover song for you.” With that, he and Dawes kicked into, “Take it Easy“. EVERYONE knew the words to that tune. The barn, a fuller than full house of 300 – plus strong, was singing along on every word. That was good shit. Jackson was being a bit tongue in cheek of course. Most everyone in the house thought he was covering an Eagles’ song … but Jackson was the one the wrote the song in the first place.
Jackson and Dawes played one more song, Our Lady of the Well, before giving way to the first intermission of the night. During the break my good friend Derek, who I had invited along to his first Ramble, took turns holding our standing room only spots and having a walk down to the “General Store”. The General Store is Levon’s garage, located underneath the performing area/studio. The General Store is the hang-out space, merch store, pot-luck food buffet chill spot (everyone is invited to bring food for the community table and share and share alike).
During the break, people hang out down there to make friends, have a beer, get some air, and in this case, hang with Dawes and Jackson Browne. Yep, that’s the Ramble for you. That chasm that usually exists between fan and performer at gigs turns into a very fine line down in Levon’s garage … one that is easy enough to, if not invites you to, cross.
I dropped a few thank you’s to Dawes and Jackson and chatted up a few other fans about how cool the opening set was. We also tried to guess what the other surprises might be. Ralph Stanely was at the Ramble the prior night … maybe he had stuck around for an encore performance? It didn’t matter, we were all a very lucky few to be in Woodstock at Levon’s house enjoying one helluva show.
The second set was about to start. I had made my way back up to our spots where Derek was waiting. He had made friends with our next performer’s manager and had brought him a beer. They were talking about how tonight was such a crazy line-up ande how there was more to come … this guy knew something we didn’t.
Jimmy Vivino … what a fucking talent … came on next. Jimmy was the orignal bandleader for the Ramble before Larry Campbell … what a fucking talent … took over. Jimmy’s current gig is the leader of the Basic Cable Band … the house band for the Conan O’Brien band. At my second Ramble [8th August, 2011] Jimmy was the opener. My wife and I were there together. I had no idea about Jimmy and how damn good this guy is. He is a master of the guitar, piano and the story telling. We absolutely fell for him.
Derek had never heard of Jimmy and I assured him that he was in for a treat. Jimmy came out and told us that he would be doing a special set … an ode to Ricky (Rick Danko) and Richard Manuel. He talked a bit about each of them, especially Rick. He said he learned a lot from Rick, specifically about how to sing. As Jimmy told it, Rick had told Jimmy that, “singing was like playing a horn … a trumpet. You don’t just blow into it as hard as you can … you tease out the sound … you bring it out and control the tone and volume … that is how you should sing, too.”
Hot damn … if there is one thing better than a killer live performance, it is a great story that goes along with it. The story was so good that it got a round of applause. It got a round of applause for Rick, for Jimmy sharing it and because we fans understood just what Rick meant. And with that, Jimmy went into the first two songs of an all Danko/Manuel set.
After the second song, he invited a couple of friends up to play drums and bass. Jimmy told us that it is always more fun to play with friends. They played one tune together and then Jimmy said he had one more friend to bring out. He started talking about legends and gods that he has played with and that his next friend that would be joining us, “kinda looked like god”.
Enter … Garth Hudson.
Wholly shit. I definitely didn’t see that one coming. Are you shitting me … Garth Hudson?! What a surprise. I was cheering so damn loud at this point. How cool is that .. .Garth Hudson came out to play Rick & Richard songs in Levon’s house. Yes, this was definitely shaping up to be “greatest ever Ramble” potential.
Garth played seven more songs with Jimmy and company. He played organ, piano and two different accordions. He didn’t say much aside form a few barely decipherable mumbles. For the most part he kept his chin buried in his chest while he hunkered over what ever instrument he was playing. Derek and I were perched up on the platform over the stage floor and were situated above the horn section and the piano/organ section. We had a clear line of sight into Garth’s mad-genius style of playing.
[You aren't supposed to take pictures of video at the Ramble, but someone in the crowd took this snap of the night's finale, the Weight, and posted it on Twitter. Funnily enough, they happened to capture me and Derek in the shot (under the arrows). Derek is on the left and I am the one with the shit eating grin on the right.]
His fingers seemingly have their own intuition. His fingers slid back and forth over the double-layers of the organ’s keyboards and plucked and plinked out fills and notes that slipped in and out of the groove’s and made those oh-so familiar Band-song sounds. It was brilliant. Garth is all essence … his playing never defines a song, rather, it brings out the special-ness of them.
After Jimmy and Garth finished we took another break. By this time we already had been treated to two-plus hours of world class music and legend guest stars (Jackson Browne and Garth Hudson playing the same room). What next? The room was just heating up.
At just around 10:00pm, Levon Helm entered the room. By then the crowd had been simmering hot. We had the heat turned up on us just enough to bring us to the brink of a full-blown boil. When Levon and his shit-hot band of family and friends came in the room, the crowd was glowing red.
I won’t go into the full on Ramble House Band experience here. I went into it in fine detail on my first Ramble post. If you want to read about how utterly fantastic this group of musicians are … read about here.
[If you are looking for a sampling of what this peerless band sounds like, check out this 2010 performance of "The Weight" straight from a Ramble. Video and pics of any kind are BIG no-no's. So while this footage is breaking Ramble code ... it's rareness makes it that much cooler. You will notice a few familiar faces in the crowd (Billy Bob Thornton and Chris robinson, Little Sammy Davis, Howard Johnson). You think this shit is cool ... try being there for it! MUCH cooler! Hot damn! ... I get the chicken skin just watching this.]
What I will tell you is this … the night’s surprises were not over. When the house band took the stage, Donald Fagan came out with them. Yes, Steely Dan Donald Fagan. Fagan is actually a Ramble regular, playing one-off gigs with the band in Woodstock and on the road from time to time. For most of the night Fagan sat at the Piano, only getting up to switch to the organ and let Ramble regular, Brian Mitchell … what a fucking talent … take over the 88’s.
Fagan did take the lead vox on two tunes: a Ramble band staple song for Fagan, the Dead’s “Shakedown Street,” and Steely’s own, “Black Friday.” Yeah, that was treat.
The final two-plus hours of music was you-had-to-be-there-good. In fact, when Jackson Browne came up in the middle of the set to sing two songs, he said the same thing. Said Jackson, “I always heard how good this band was … but words don’t come close to doing them justice. You have to see it with your own eyes and hear it with your own ears to believe it … I am a believer now.” Damn straight, Jackson. Daaaamn Straight.
Jackson played two songs with the band. The first was Dylan’s “It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry.” The second song came with a bit of preamble: said Jackson, “they asked me what song I would like to play ahead of time. This next song is a song that you all got to know just as I did … while driving down the road and singing it in your car (applause from the crowd).” He looked over to his left at Levon and said, “this is one of the greatest songs ever,” and then they lit into “Cripple Creek”. The place went nuts with everyone singing along to every word. Jackson was singing and smiling his ass off. You could tell he was enjoying the hell out of it. Once a fan, always a fan.
3rd December, set list
The rest of the set was a rousing and rocking, communal party with everyone singing, clapping and foot stomping. The last song of the set was Ramble tradition: The Weight. This is when every musician in the house hots the floor to play, sing and sway back and forth to this long gone daddy of a tune. For this version the floor was jam-packed: four guitarists, five horns, four back-up singers, one piano, one organ, one accordion, two drummers and a room full of hand-clappers and sing-a-long’ers.
Levon shouts out, “Jackson gets the first verse,” (something that seems like a prestigious offering). Jackson kicks it off with Taylor from Dawes taking verse number three (Larry took verse number two) with Amy Helm and Theresa Williams taking the “cannonball” verse to a place you can’t fathom without seeing it first hand. There was a solo or two or three … even one on tuba from legendary horn man Howard Johnson.
The last chorus was a community event: everyone … EVERYONE … was singing at max volume. When it was all said and done, after five hours of music, it was time to exhale again … satisfied.
Derek and I stood there in disbelief for a couple of minutes while we watched Levon and all the musicians wave thanks to the crowd and make their way out, stage right. We looked at each other and didn’t say a word … just let out a couple simultaneous laughs and shook our heads.
We went down stairs to the General Store and milled around. I saw the members of Dawes down there talking (awing) about the gig. Taylor was talking about someone in his extended group of people saying, “yeah I saw his eyes well up a bit during The Weight“. The next day, someone from Dawes (presumably Taylor, rumoured to run the Twitter feed) make this tweet:
I saw Donald Fagan from Steely Dan sing a Grateful Dead song Lowell George produced w Levon Helm on drums tonight.—
Dawes (@dawestheband) December 04, 2011
Like I said … once a fan, always a fan.
Ah, The Ramble … It was a goal to get to one Ramble in 2011, but I ended up making it to three. Each Ramble I went to was better than the previous one. It wasn’t just because of the guests (although this last round of guests was shit-hot). It was because each time I went it felt more and more that I belonged there … like I was welcomed back to play my role: the sing-a-long, all-in, no-other-place-in-the-world-I’d-rather-be fan.
I said this before about the Ramble and I wil say it again:
If music is your passion, or community is what you value most, or you just love to celebrate and have fun, you must attend The Midnight Ramble. Take the back roads to Woodstock. Drop your pumpkin pie off at the General Store. Stand in line and make new friends. Get inside and find your spot. Join in with the band. Open up and allow the Ramble to work its magic on you.
Once you let it, you won’t regret it.
Ain’t it the truth.
A note about my partner in crime for this ramble: Derek. Derek and I grew up together in the same hometown (me being a couple/few years older) and happened to go the same college, too. Like me, Derek has that freak music gene. He is a true-fan, too. For the most part we dig the same type of tunes … I do have to give him a pass for that George Thorogood itch he can’t help scratching (enough is enough, Derek). I tend to get more deep-traditional blues, country and soul than he does, but he has the appreciation for it. He’s a perfect concert cohort.
This was his first Ramble … and it lived up to my billing. On the day of the ramble I was in New Hampshire visiting my parents. Derek lives in Providence, Rhode Island. I had my parents drive 90 minutes south and drop me off on the highway just off the Mass Pike (yes, I am 39 years old). Derek was there and picked me up and off to Woodstock we went. We made ourselves (with a little help from our friends) a “Road to the Ramble” playlist on Spotify for the trip. You can check it out here.
We pulled into town and went into a local bar (one of a small few). As soon as we walked in, some guy started shouting at us in a Philly accent, “You guys ever had Anchor Steam Christmas Ale?!” WIthout missing a beat, I shouted back, “We’ll take two!” From that point on we spent the next three hours bending elbows with our new found Philly friend Murph and his buddy.
These guys were fans, too. We swapped concert going stories and clinked glasses up until Derek and I had to head off to the Ramble. Here’s a picture of me, Murph and Derek drinking our Christmas Ales.