The first of Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles of the New Year is no doubt one of the most unusual. The open-ended improvisational approach of Medeski‚ Martin and Wood seems on the surface to be far removed from the rockin' blues roots of the former drummer of The Band (once leader of the Hawks who went on to back Bob Dylan when he went electric in 1966).
But it's the joy of playing that Helm‚ Medeski Martin and Wood have in common. None of the latter three express that joy in the same radiant way Helm does‚ but a palpable warmth grew steadily nonetheless during the comparatively short‚ condensed set they played this evening following an afternoon show for kids in celebration of their just-released children's album.
Billy's introductions as well as the fleeting smiles his two comrades exchanged as they played together-especially on the Ray Charles-derived second number-exuded a camaraderie hard to miss‚ especially in such an intimate setting. Nothing truly uncanny occurred‚ as MMW were content mostly to groove along: finely etched bass solos from Wood on the standup‚ Martin on talking drum and cowbell and Medeski taking turns on electric keyboards‚ organ and piano filled approximately an hour.
Helm was in a groove of his own but a groove nonetheless‚ due largely to the style in which he still drums after some 40-plus years. He knows exactly how to emphatically accent the beat right where it needs to go. All the while‚ he alternates from a forehead deeply furrowed in concentration to blissful grin.
No doubt much of his satisfaction emanates from playing such shows with his own band‚ before an adoring crowd well ensconced in the cozy confines of his barn (recently rebuilt from fire‚ no doubt with Ramble performances in mind). Then there's the profound pleasure of having conquered throat cancer‚ a brush with mortality that few of the audience (nor the opening act) may have shared‚
But there's also the practical aspect of reasserting the very foundation of his music as well as choosing carefully from The Band's hallowed canon. A reworked guitar arrangement of "Chest Fever‚" grandly introduced by musical director Larry Campbell‚ ended up the target of ecstatic recognition only slightly less rousing than that which greeted "Ophelia" from Northern Lights Southern Cross. In contrast‚ only a slow realization of Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to laugh‚ It Takes A Train to Cry" was the true blues of the two-hour set‚ recurrences of which became touchpoints even apart from the giddy participation of Little Sammy Davis on vocals and harp.
The Band's "Rag Mama Rag" wasn't even the high point of the short acoustic interlude mid-set. Surrounded by his daughter Amy on vocals and mandolin‚ Campbell on acoustic guitar violin and mandolin and the lovely Teresa Williams on vocals and acoustic (all of who were lynchpins of the Grammy-nominated album Dirt Farmer Helm hawked so facetiously)‚ Levon proved that a voice ravaged at one point by cancer had almost fully regained its strength.
More importantly‚ his heart and soul have never lost their resilience. The moment all accompanists dropped out while Levon sang solo may have been the set's peak‚ but it's notable he didn't spend the whole night in the spotlight (even if all eyes‚ from one vantage point or another‚ may have been fixed constantly on him). The focal point of the evening was more than content to play drums as a participant in an instrumental rendition of "Ode to Billy Joe" that featured the horn players who added much throughout the evening‚ trumpeter Steve Bernstein and saxophonist Eric Lawrence. The presence of John Medeski on organ for that tune only added to the communal feel of the moment for the musicians and for the audience.
As was the case throughout the nearly four hours of activity on the intimate stage. This concert series begun in 2005 takes its name from the minstrel shows that traveled the South in Levon's youth and now stands as unique a concert experience any music fan is likely to have even without the significance of the location: in the mythic Woodstock environs that witnessed the work of Dylan and The Band as well as the 1969 festival. Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble this night found him paying homage to the music he loved best‚ yet he never pandered to his own storied past. On the contrary‚ the horn sounds that echoed Allen Toussaint's arrangements for The Band's Rock of Ages live album in turn hearkened to their true source: the city of New Orleans.
It was hardly an accident that Levon Helm sang "(I Don't Want to) Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes" with a feverish vigor to culminate his performance. It carried profound resonance when performed alongside Robertson‚ Danko‚ Manuel and Hudson some 37 years ago at the Academy of Music and bears even more now.