Monday, October 11, 2010

Midnight Ramble
starring Levon Helm
w/ guest Steve Earle

Third Ramble at the Barn, 4th in total, at some point I should be having my fill, you'd think. The Midnight Ramble won't be around forever and when it's gone I'm betting there won't be anything to replace it. This is mostly a nostalgia trip but there's something life affirming about paying homage to good times past, while creating new good times.

Out of Toronto on the Friday afternoon of a long weekend on both sides of the border. (We Canadians are celebrating our compact with the First Nations, Thanksgiving, while the Americans are celebrating the beginning of the end for those First Nations, Columbus Day. Ironic, eh?) The night drive to Binghamton NY allows us to spend the full day seeing sights, which start at Yazgur's Farm, now the Bethel Woods Center site.

This was another 'beginning of the end'; as the 60's closed the counter-culture was having it's last group grope in the mud. It was a much nicer day as I look over the field where the multitudes assembled.

We have breakfast in nearby Monticello at Tilley's Diner with our good friend, and neighbourhood guide, JS.

A mid-day stroll around Woodstock for photos is followed by a trip to the Woodstock Cemetary to visit Rick Danko's last resting place.

From here we're off to visit his old stomping grounds, Big Pink.

We hook up with our friend JS at Joshua's Restaurant on Tinker St where the Apple-Burnt Butternut Squash soup was the star attraction. After dinner it's time to make our way to the barn.

Steve Earle definitely made the show tonight. Opened with Copperhead Road...BANG...take that. Jerusalem was in there too and i wish i was more familiar with his catalogue so I could tell you what he played but it all sounded great.

He's doing a record with T Bone Burnett and will be touring with his new band, The Dukes, early next year, we were told. The bass player (since 1988) and drummer (since 1999) were the oldtimers. Besides the guitar playing kid and the fiddler girl he had his new wife on the keys. He did a full set (8-10 songs) as the opener and came back for 3 songs near the end of Levon's set.

My wife pointed out to me Steve's little interjection at the end of The Mountain...."don't let them FRACK in these mountains". There's a huge controversy in the area about the mining method, fracking, which threatens the water tables.

During the set he spoke of a recent lawsuit he was involved in, one that would see him making money as it had to do with royalties due for songs he'd written. Trouble was he had to tell them when and where they were composed and his memory ain't too reliable when you get past 16 years ago. (sober 16 years now he proudly tells us.)

After his set I was downstairs when Steve came out with his new baby (about 3-4 months old) carrying him out in a car seat. Nice looking kid, was sleeping. Steve was calling out to his wife to start the car and warm it up. He's recently moved into the area, we think, as Levon called him their new neighbor.

As for the main set:

Larry Campbell is almost ready to tour on his own. he was awesome. his guitar playing is what it always was...terrific. his vocals are getting better and he's really got an emerging stage prescence.

Levon wasn't in as great shape. He did maybe two songs (Ophelia, and the maybe is because I can't name another complete song) and verses of Blind Willie McTell and The Weight (which had Steve Earle doing the opening verse) and lent harmonies on the chorus to some other songs.

If you can do it once, you should.

Observations from my friend JS :

Levon did a "call and response" on "I Want to Know" - he called, Larry, Teresa & Co. responded. His voice was frailer when he spoke than when he sang, but it was clearly in need of rest. The evening was really great. The Levon portion of the show has become much more "professional" since I last saw it; the arrangements, set-list, staging are much more of a show and probably a reflection of taking it on the road for performance in more conventional venues. The musicianship was superb - horn section (4 brass strong); 2 keyboardists - organ and piano (and accordion); huge acoustic bass; 2 guitars (Larry and Jimmy Weider- the Band's last guitarist. Levon was on drums throughout (he did one song on mandolin) and played well - no flagging there. The whole thing struck me afterwards as kind of Levon's version of "Theme Time Radio Hour" - an anthology, of sorts, of the music that formed him; it covered quite a wide spectrum - from blues and ballads to dixieland and gospel. The Band songs were moving - mini-anthologies in themselves, they've now taken their place in the Great Songbook of Americana and stand next to the likes of "Deep Ellum Blues" with a total sense of aptness. The whole segment was quite moving - and long! They played till 12:30 am. Steve Earle was really excellent, too - I began to appreciate his song-craft and his voice.