Although I've been a huge Chris Wood fan since I first heard Medeski Martin & Wood‚ I went into the Wood Brothers' return to Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble knowing nothing about the rootsy country/blues sound Chris has been making with big brother Oliver Wood. Oliver's passionate vocals and Bo Diddley rhythm guitar made an immediate impression on the opener "Liza Jane‚" and when drummer Tyler Greenwell joined the Brothers to kick-start "Please Pay Attention‚" I leaned my forearms on the railing in front of me and settled in for one of those magic nights that wraps an arm around you and says‚ "Make yourself at home!"
And then it got better -- way better! "We'd like to welcome our friend John Medeski to the stage‚" Oliver announced.
Part of the legend surrounding the Ramble is that anyone can show up at any time. It's one of the reasons why people throw down $150.00 a ticket and drive deep into the trees around Woodstock‚ NY to spend an evening in a modern/rustic wood structure that's half ski lodge and half "Barn of the Future." So I knew something like this could happen… but that didn't stop my jaw's sudden descent as Medeski joined the Brothers for "When I Was Young‚" a joyful rave-up that's slated to appear on a new Wood Brothers disc sometime this August.
Oliver and Greenwell stepped up their already-high-flying pace as Chris slapped the shit out of his upright bass‚ a massive grin on his face. Medeski made his Melodica wail like Stevie Wonder's harmonica as the crowd howled for more and more. Then Medeski traded the Melodica for a Hammond B3 as the Brothers eased everybody's throttle back with the acoustic ballad "Smoke Ring Halo."
I was sold -- not just on the Wood Brothers (who were my New Favorite band by the end of their set) but on the Ramble itself. It's not the tent show Helm described in Martin Scorsese's monumental documentary The Last Waltz‚ but it's got to be as much fun. Helm's studio is far down a two-lane residential road; the entrance is unmarked‚ and if you're not alert‚ you'll miss the place completely. But once you get out of your car and walk among the crowd‚ the sense of occasion really takes you over. Then it multiplies once you see the concert space's high ceiling‚ multi-tiered loft seating‚ and hardwood everything. The Hard Rock Café it's not‚ but that's the point. For one thing‚ Hard Rock doesn't have a "community table" where audience members can contribute snacks‚ pies‚ mini-pizzas‚ or anything else they choose to bring.
Despite the health problems Helm has dealt with over the last few years‚ The Band's former drummer still performs at every show‚ and not just a quick "star turn‚" either: On this night‚ he played a staggering 2-hour‚ 21-song set with a 12-member monster truck that featured Steely Dan frontman Donald Fagen on keyboards and a five-piece horn section led by multi-instrumentalist/longtime Band collaborator Howard Johnson. This was on top of the Wood Brothers electrifying 50-minute performance‚ as well as an opening acoustic set by 81-year old bluesman Little Sammy Davis! It's hard to give people their money's worth at $150.00 a pop‚ but the Ramble definitely gets it done.
Sadly‚ Helm's Wild Turkey-potent singing voice is long gone‚ a casualty of the throat cancer he's now officially free from. However‚ Helm breaks through his rasp to sing on a few numbers‚ and his drumming is still a turbo-charged engine that can drive any size group over the top. In any case‚ vocals were no problem on this night: Besides Fagen and keyboardist Brian Mitchell (who gave the opener "The Shape I'm In" its requisite growl)‚ Levon's daughter Amy Helm teamed with guitarist Therese Williams and multi-instrumentalist/de facto frontman Larry Campbell to create a multi-faceted vocal attack that both enthralled and enthused.
The trio thrilled us with an appropriately tortured "It Makes No Difference" and a hushed acoustic take on "Attics of My Life." The latter tune was part of a Grateful Dead mini-set where the horn section took "Deep Elem Blues" from Nashville to New Orleans; later on‚ the horns pulled a Preservation Hall during Dr. John's "On a Mardi Gras Day‚" walking through the crowd while playing full blast. ("Mardi Gras's over‚" Campbell chuckled‚ "but it's never over up here!") After Fagen led the band through a letter-perfect "Black Friday‚" he paid tribute to the late Richard Manuel by nailing "King Harvest (Has Surely Come)." Campbell replaced Garth Hudson's fabled solo-organ opening to "Chest Fever" with snarling electric guitar‚ and between that and Jim Weider's titanic slide guitar on the out-section‚ all the long-time Band fans were thinking‚ "Robbie Robertson? Never heard of him!"
The Wood Brothers joined the group for "The Weight‚" the only song that could close this night properly. It wasn't just a song‚ it was a celebration‚ and Levon Helm's smile lit up the house as everyone in the building joined in on the chorus. Like I said‚ it was one of those nights that you can't believe is happening‚ and you're still taking about it twenty years later. That's my plan‚ anyway.