I spent last Saturday night at the home of Levon Helm, hanging out with his pals, dining from a generous spread of food and then watching him lead a 12-piece band through a 2+ hour set of amazing music. Now, lest you think this is some rock star boast of hanging with even bigger rock stars in a world kept secret from anyone not in the club, you can put those thoughts right out of your head. Linda and I were in Woodstock at Levon’s pad for one of his semi-regular Midnight Rambles.
I had heard about these shows and had been planning on booking a car and heading up I-87 to Woodstock, New York for several years now and we finally got around to booking the tickets. I mean, I don’t want to get morbid but I’ve been trying to live by the philosophy that you HAVE to see these people WHEN you can because you just don’t know when any show might be the last (which reminds me – I’ve got to get down to the Duck Room in St. Louis very soon to see Chuck Berry-but that’s another future, uh, ramble).
Look, it’s easy. You just go online, take a deep breath and plunk down the bucks (it’s not cheap) and drive towards Woodstock, veer off the highway and then drive deep into the woods, down a long driveway and there you are. You’re at the home of the man who backed Dylan in TWO of his prime eras, played and sang on all of those classic Robbie Robertson songs and pretty much is one of the best rock drummers of all time (just ask Linda).
And after grabbing various items from the pot luck buffet downstairs, you head upstairs to Levon’s studio, sit in one of about 100 folding chairs and settle in for about four hours of music. If you’re us, you get there early and make sure you’re sitting about 2 feet from Levon, especially if one of the two of you (hint: it wasn’t me) wants to check out every move he makes behind the kit.
Levon lost much of his ability to sing when he fought (and beat) throat cancer a few years back but he still managed to croak out a spirited version of The Band’s Ophelia and contributed to versions of Blind Willie McTell and The Weight. The rest of the vocals were handled by various members of his band including his daughter Amy (who was pregnant and seemed ready to go into labor any second) and bandleader Larry Campbell who played in Bob Dylan’s best lineup (outside of The Band, of course) from 1995 to 2004.
People who follow my website, career and blogging adventures know that I have become a big fan of house concerts in recent years but this is a whole new twist. It’s one thing to bring your show into the welcoming homes of strangers (and it’s a mighty good thing) but a much rarer thing for a rock musician to open up HIS home to fans. And Levon was a gracious host, playing great and giving all he had for a long, long evening (the man is 71 years old!). In my fantasies, Levon pulled me out of the audience, got me up for a few songs and then invited me to stay for the weekend but, hey, even in a weekend where reality can seem very far-fetched, you still have to leave a few improbabilities to the realm of the unreal.
The Band – Ophelia from film “The Last Waltz”