Holding the Golden Ticket – Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble w/moe.
Contributing Writer – Garret K. Woodward
Contributing Photographer – Andrew “Dirty Santa” Wyatt
My nose was almost touching the windshield.
The road was dark and a slight rain diluted my vision. Desperately looking for the correct address, I was lost on the rural backroads winding around the ancient Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. But, just when it seemed all hope was gone, numerous small red lights could be seen trickling out from the dense woods to the left.
It was a long line of taillights.
I turned down the muddy driveway. My mind raced over the unknown possibilities. I was finally going to see what the fuss was all about.
For the better part of the last decade, legendary drummer/vocalist Levon Helm (The Band) has held a series of intimate performances within a studio in his home. Though not much is known in the media over what transpires on the property, intriguing word-of-mouth rumors have emerged amid social circles in the music scene.
This folklore follows in the imaginary footsteps of The Wizard of Oz, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and along the actual lines of the mysterious Phish barn in Vermont or the living quarters of the Grateful Dead in Haight-Ashbury.
And now, here I am, with the golden ticket in my hand, ready to pull back the curtain and cross the threshold that takes hearsay and molds it into exquisite fact.
The car tires squished through the mud of Helm’s backyard. Dozens of vehicles crammed onto the land. Anonymous faces cracked open cold microbrews. Cigarette smoke, exhaled in haste, drifted into the crisp, starry night. Burn barrels dotted the road to the studio. Laughter echoed into the distance.
Entering the first floor, a potluck was strewn over several tables.
“If anyone is interested, I made potato latke,” a friendly stranger mentions, placing the homemade dish with the other appetizers, entrees and desserts which included local cheese and crackers, chili, pulled pork sandwiches and cheesecake bites.
Bellies now full, the attendees (numbering around 150) made their way upstairs, trying to locate a seat or space along the wall and balconies surrounding the stage.
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Meandering through the crowd like the cool guys at a keg party, moe. quietly picked up their instruments and slid into “Puebla”. Bodies were tucked into every corner and dimly light crevasse of the enormous wooden barn, designed with cathedral ceilings, thick crossbeams and cozy nooks ideal for snuggling with an east coast mama.
The audience surrounds the band in this Mad Max fashion, as if they were performing in the Thunderdome and had to prove their worth before they were allowed to leave. It was a surreal feeling to be within an arm’s length of a group you have the utmost respect and admiration towards.
To watch their fingers flick guitar notes, their feet tap pedals, their voices discuss technique between selections, their hands pound equipment, their faces showing slight wrinkles of years on the road and their mouths smiling in reflection of the moment brings a whole new appreciation to their craft. It’s a rare sentiment, one I can only attribute to the intimacy of the ramble.
Paying homage to their homeland of New York and the northeast, the band thanked the frenzied listeners with a stretched “Rebubula” and poignant “New York City”. The energy of the hour-long set filled the space like an overblown balloon, ready to burst at any given time.
“For musicians, this is a pretty inviting environment. It’s inspiring,” said moe. guitarist Chuck Garvey. “The Band has a big influence on us, just in making everything sound real and earthy and kind of gritty, not overdoing anything. You want to speak plainly with your instrument, sing really well-constructed songs, done directly and getting simple in the best way possible. Being here brings out that other part of our personality.”
Between sets, a cold breeze filters into the sauna-like room when many head outside for another drink or cigarette. A handful of snowflakes tumble from the sky. Downstairs, the curious wander the hallways of the Helm residence, looking at family picture collages, past articles, two Grammy awards or Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee honor proudly displayed.
Going for another helping of pulled pork, one finds themselves picking away at the feast alongside moe., who, on top of hungry, also took interest in the artifacts and mementos lining the never-ending walls.
While going to the bathroom, an odd thought occurs, “I’m peeing in Levon Helm’s toilet”. Surely this is a notion shared by many and there are probably all kinds of weird things floating through the minds scattered about.
It is an awkward feeling trekking around the ambiance of revered man only seen from afar, in movies or black and white photos. Helm has created a magical castle for himself and lovingly invites any to partake in his happiness.
But, as soon as I wash and dry my hands, I hear foot-stomps coming through the ceiling. The structure shakes. Muffled voices shout and cheer. It only means one thing.
Levon has taken the stage.
Sitting behind his drum kit, Helm sways to horn section solos, guitar riffs or the soothing vocals of Teresa Williams and Amy Helm (his daughter). The group steps into a variety of territories. In a matter of minutes, they can go from honky-tonk to big band, rock to Latin, alternative country to Bourbon Street mania.
With the most delicate of precision, you can’t take your eyes off Levon. His gentle tapping mesmerizes the audience. I look over and see moe. drummer Vinnie Amico caught in a trance, watching Helm, trying to figure out the tricks of the elder statesman.
“I kept looking at his left hand. He shuffles a lot and being so influential on me, I had to watch and see how he does it,” Amico said. “Since I was 18, I’ve played in bands that play The Band music. All of their stuff has an influence on what I do today.”
Howling into the heavens, Helm has a grin ear-to-ear when “Ophelia” kicks in. The entire barn gyrates and sings together like a church revival on the Louisiana bayou. Guitarist Larry Campbell throws bare-knuckle licks. Pounding the keys with a thunderous fury, pianist Brian Mitchell looks Helm directly in the eye as the two belt out the lyrics burned into the memory of those with good taste in music.
Stepping out from behind the drums, Helm grabs the mandolin and joins his daughter for “Deep Ellum Blues”. Time slows down when the duet sings to each other, radiating a love on found within in the confines of song and family.
Lining the heater bordering one side of the stage, moe. guitarist Al Schnier and Garvey mouth the words to “Tennessee Jed”. Helm hums the Grateful Dead staple with such joy, you start to count your blessings in crossing paths with this unforgettable sight blossoming for all to hold in their hearts from this point forward.
The pure emotion is unrelenting. Proudly introducing his old colleague from Arkansas, rockabilly guitar legend C.W. Gatlin, Helm pats his friend on the back and welcomes him to paint a few strokes onto his musical canvas.
Temptation, isolation and redemption tumble from each selection, an ironic and touching aura. Williams commands the listener. Her chilling vocals provoke not only goosebumps in those around her, but tears in the eyes of those who take her for her word, immersing themselves in the staggering physical and melodic beauty she shares.
Joining the ensemble, Schnier and Garvey strapped on their acoustics, ready to tackle “The Weight”. Trading verses in a round-robin style, the immortal tune forever tied together those onstage and off.
The night was over, but the memories had been set in motion.
Creeping back down the driveway, strangers now friends waved goodbye, wishing others well and making plans for the next rendezvous. The directional light pointed right.
I spent the rest of the four hour drive trying to make sense of the evening. I left with truth and clarity, but what remained was the simple fact I had truly witnessed passion in its purest form.