Anyone familiar with Martin Scorsese's 1978 documentary "The Last Waltz," which showcases The Band's seminal Thanksgiving Day finale performance, has heard about the Midnight Ramble. In a brief scene (
embedded above), drummer Levon Helm explains the appeal of traveling medicine shows that would play late into the night, and as "the jokes would get a little juicier and the prettiest dancer would really get down," many of the more adventurous rhythms and underground mentalities of early rock and roll were born. Helm's version of the Midnight Ramble takes place several times a year at his cozy home recording studio in Woodstock, where I was lucky enough to attend a performance over the weekend. The hefty price of admission is worth it. (Check out the site for upcoming dates, both in Woodstock and around the country.)
Helm, now 70 and a cancer survivor, invites a large roster of guests to fill the intimate two-floor wooden space for lively sets that last several hours. Although his voice has grown raspy and his energy clearly began to wane by the end of the night, he still managed to belt out an energetic blues tune and keep the drumbeats flowing throughout. The Levon Helm Band, which won the first "Americana" Grammy for last year's "Electric Dirt," barrels forward with brassy energy thanks to a talented group of horn players, each of whom gets a chance to shine (the saxophonist even received a birthday cake, which was presented to him with much musical fanfare). The band's versatile guitarist-frontman, Larry Campbell, humbly let Helm take the spotlight while unleashing super-fast licks that would make any music junkie's head spin. (Campbell played with Dylan, too. A seriously under-appreciated talent.)
Which is not to say that Helm displays any particular need for attention over the rest of the musicians. Quite the opposite, in fact: Attendees are told at the door not to take any photos or ask for autographs, which lends a more personable element to the show. (You're also encouraged to bring food for a potluck that takes place outdoors.) Still, some audience members couldn't contain their enthusiasm, shouting "I love you Levon!" whenever the room quieted down. Helm nimbly threw it right back at them. "I am in love," he croaked.
The show had a particularly sweet sound on Saturday thanks to the presence of two female vocalists: Amy Helm (Levon's daughter and regular bandmate) in addition to Campbell's wife, Theresa Williams. With these two leading the vocal harmonies, the performance never drifted far from melodic bliss. Donald Fagen, one half of Steely Dan, held his own at the piano. Show opener Kenny White, meanwhile, hit all the right notes as well -- both literally and figuratively. A mellow pianist whose sound and autobiographical lyrics suggest Ben Folds with more life experience, White at one point sang a satiric tune lamenting the endless pop stars whose songs repeatedly deal with break-ups, breakdowns, and absurd falsetto vocals. It's a fate that has trapped many artists, but Helm does not appear to be one of them. According to Wikipedia, the drummer was displeased with the experience of working on "The Last Waltz," but his description of the Midnight Ramble stands as its best selling point. If rock was born in the early days of the Midnight Ramble, then its real tradition lives on.
Check out the Midnight Ramble site for tour dates and additional information.
A sampling of the Midnight Ramble, with a cameo by Billy Bob Thornton: