Sunday, October 28, 2007

At the Helm

Laal and i checked out the Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm Studios last night! definitely a trip. basically the deal is this: Levon Helm, former drummer of the Band, has built himself a studio/performance space in a big, beautiful barn in Woodstock, NY, and every few weeks, he puts on concerts there.

i'd known about this for awhile and though i'd wanted to catch Levon forever, i avoided it b/c it was too damned expensive. but the stars (cough, press perks, cough) aligned this time and everything worked out. it was definitely a pilgrimage sort of thing--i was really happy to be able to check Levon off my list of Idols Witnessed in Person.

we flaked and did not bring a carved pumpkin, as was requested. but many other attendees came through as you can see above (photos weren't allowed inside the show, so this is all i got). i thought it was a little funny that someone chose to carve the "Last Waltz" logo given Levon's very public disdain for that concert and production (the full story is in his incredible memior, This Wheel's On Fire, but Levon's basic position is that the Band's breakup was a money-grabbing stunt perpetrated on the other members by Robbie Robertson), but the pic still gives you an idea of the homey vibe happening up there.

so it really was a barn, for real. people brought all sorts of chips and cookies and potluck sorts of things that were laid out on the first floor. the studio was upstairs--all unpainted wood and brick. modern-looking but very classy. the ceilings were high but space was pretty limited. if i had to estimate i'd say about 100 people fit in there. though they could have, they didn't oversell the thing. most of the folding chairs were taken, but there was plenty of room for dancing and whatnot.

we watched from the balcony for most of the set. Levon's band came out after a few opening acts, which we missed for the most part. he's got a pretty excellent little group, with two guitarists--one of whom, Larry Campbell, produced Helm's new album and happens to be the brother of this dude who was my boss at an old temp job--a stand-up bassist, a trombonist, a saxist, a pianist and a few guest singers: one a female country singer and an excellent blues singer/harmonica player, Little Sammy Davis. [sorry for the sketchy personnel info; can't find all these folks' names.]

Levon's voice is hoarse, but very much there. he sang lead on about half the tunes, and drummed on all but a few--getting up for some mandolin numbers in the middle. the setlist was probably 70% old-timey blues, country and rock & roll (songs like "I Want to Know" that i hadn't heard, but that felt very familiar), with a few Band songs ("Ophelia," "Rag Mama Rag," "The Weight" and--probably the highlight of the night--"Chest Fever," w/ Campbell doing a really solid lead vocal and a great guitar imitation of Garth Hudson's famous organ part) and a few Dylan songs (including a great version of "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry").

this isn't intended as an insult, but Levon's music post-Band is not rocket science. he's not a songwriter in any sense, and he's not really interested in expanding his repertoire; he just likes to groove and have a good time, and this show reminded you that his real gift is entertaining. being a drummer, i obviously had my eyes glued to him the whole time, but i know i wasn't the only one. he just exudes good cheer and pure rhythm and the bounce and groove were heavy all night.

in some of the Band videos, especially "The Last Waltz," Levon's performance has an almost dire vibe, with a lot of grimacing and visible effort. here though, he was all smiles. there was rarely a minute when he didn't have this huge grin on his face--his hair is silver, but he looks totally sharp. he was winking and nodding his head to various audience members--i think i even got a nod at one point and felt totally blessed--and just generally holding court. the sound was absolutely excellent and though it was a little chilly right near the entrance, the studio was really, really cozy and awesome.

back to the drumming, though. i'm sort of stalling on this part of my account, because it's hard to evoke it accurately. let's just say that his chops and groove are completely intact and that i was totally digging the copious classic Levon licks he was busting out. his fills were minimal yet epic as always; there's that great little move where does a little press roll moving from the hi-hat to the ride and gives that little snarl. and then there's his awesome syncopation, the way his cymbal hand generally follows his snare hand--totally busting up the idea that drumming is all about limb independence. there were many times last night where he was playing the exact same thing on the cymbal, snare and bass drum, and the pocket was just insanely deep. he was also throwing out those awesome one-handed rolls--he never uses back-and-forth sticking unless he needs to. also, i was thrilled to hear maybe my favorite rhythmic figure in rock played live: that cavernous syncopated bass-drum thud in the outro of the chorus of "The Weight"--duh / duh / duh / duh / duh --***boom***... kang. i felt that so deeply last night.

listen, if you're a fan, you've got to go check this out at least once.


made contact with another phenomenal drummer on Friday, Mr. Cleve Pozar, alive and well in Clinton Hill. i'm working with Cleve on his oral history, portions of which are scheduled to be electronically published soon. i'll keep you posted! absolutely fascinating cat. details were sketchy when i posted on him awhile back, but i'm getting the full story from the source! short list of heavy players Cleve has worked with: Bob James, Cooper-Moore (then Gene Ashton), Eric Dolphy, Bill Dixon, Jimmy Garrison, Peter Ivers. many crazy tales, i assure you...


woodstockpatch said...

"Hurricane" off American Son should reassure you that the possible the reason Levon has such disdain for Robbie is that maybe he has MORE song-writing chops than he was ever credited with on those early Band albums. "Hurricane" is a song so well composed and eeerily prophetic...Try rhyming "Pontchitrain" sometime in a song! Ever wonder how songs like "The night they drove old dixie down" could be written "exclusively" by a canadian w/out any input by the rest of the band? Or when they sing "stay and keep Annalee co." in the Weight which happens to be Levon's sisters name and YET written by Robbie? alone? C'mon, lastly, ever wonder why the band records "writing" started to tail off towards the end of their recording output? Maybe the rest of the guys stopped "collaborating" with the main "songwriter" Robert Robinson...listen to the records. I think its pretty clear if they sound like a group they were written as a group...alas, Robbie showed us his "solo" chops on all of those stunning solo records...anyway, longwinded but alas I think Levon is a bit more of a songwriter than you've suggested. BTW, last week, I was at the "barn" which doubles as Levon's home and was fortunate to be played an original demo of Chest Fever played uptempo and rocking a skiffle beat...stunning.

woodstockpatch said...

oops Robertson but whos paying attention anyway...