Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble

After leaving some of my loyal readers (approximately 4 of them) in the lurch regarding my recent pilgrimage to Woodstock, NY, allow me this opportunity to apologize. It's been a hell of a long week, most of which was spent on the road for work. By the way, if you were ever under the impression that it would be a glorious life getting to live in hotels for weeks at a time and being forced to drink every night against your will because it's essentially part of your job; well, I'm just here to tell you that it's not all it's cracked up to be. And yes, that is my excuse for not having anything posted in the past 10 days. And for being disgustingly out of shape. And for being a borderline alcoholic. But I digress.

So anyway, for my dad's 54th birthday, I decided to get him tickets to see Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble. For the uninitiated, Levon was the drummer/singer in The Band. And The Band, of course, are that beautiful concoction of Canadians with a dash of Arkansas soul that started out as Ronnie Hawkins' backing band (then referred to as "The Hawks), eventually getting the nod to back Dylan when he went electric on the 1965-66 tour, and ultimately graduating to become their own act, going simply by the name of "The Band", because that's what everyone had been calling them for years. They released Music From Big Pink in 1968, featuring this little ditty... and the rest, as they say, is history.

Levon doesn't tour any more because he's getting up there (67 isn't exactly condusive to the "sex, drugs and rock and roll" lifestyle) and because he just recently got over a battle with throat cancer. So instead, he does what I think every legitimage, aging rock star should do: he has people come to him. The man lives in a ridiculously impressive converted barn in the hills above Woodstock, and every couple of weeks, he puts on these shows where you buy tickets, drive out to the man's property, pack your trunk full of beer and food, and pretty well get in on a house party with the best damn house band you could ever imagine. I initially heard about this show from my buddy Richie who said that I absolutely had to take my dad down to see it, and it turns out he was bang on.

I left my place just before 6 o'clock on Saturday morning, and ended up meeting my dad, who was making the lengthy drive from Dornoch, at my buddy Dooner's place in Burlington. Dooner is one of the very few friends of mine who is actually responsible enough to have a wife and child, to say nothing of his house with the extra large driveway that just happens to be conveniently located where the QEW wraps around the western edge of Lake Ontario... the perfect parking space for any car poolers heading south through Niagara Falls. The Doon familiy was gracious enough to let my dad leave his ride in their driveway, and we made sure we brought them back a six pack of Coors Originals for their troubles.

We hit up the duty free for a bottle of Bushmills 10 year single malt and a litre of Jameson, and headed off along the NY State Thruway, munching on the killer lunch my mom packed for us (couple of mama's boys, I know). Pretty non-descript ride, but as we were driving south of Albany, we noticed a disproportionately large number of Sens fans, and when we stopped at one of the rest stops for a large Starbucks to bring us through the home stretch, we got talking to them and realized that they were all headed to the Meadowlands for Game 2 with the Devils. We also got talking to the parents of Mike Pelino, who is apparently one of the assistant coaches with the New York Rangers, having clearly taken a step back in his career after becoming the all time winningest coach in the storied history of the Brock Badgers. Anyway, his parents were travelling with all of their son's gold medal rings from his time spent with Hockey Canada. Why, I have no idea, and why they'd be willing to let us pose with said rings is an even a greater mystery, but nonetheless, it's safe to say that this is about as close as my dad and I will ever come to winning a gold medal.

We pulled into Woodstock sometime around 3 in the afternoon, and were immediately taken aback by two things. One being how beautiful the Catskill Mountains can be in the springtime (this was never actually articulated, for the record), and the other being how many aging hippies were wandering the streets of town. The latter, we commented on endlessly. And I guess we expected a few holdouts from the good ol' days; you know, the guys who didn't heed the advice about avoiding the brown acid; but this was surreal. It was like going to Cooperstown and seeing the ghosts from Field of Dreams playing catch in the streets, or arriving in Chicago and buying bootlegged liquor off of the descendants of Al Capone, or waking up in the middle of the night with a car in your living room and Billy Joel behind the wheel. Just too good to be true.

Anyway, we checked into our little bed and breakfast, and immediately got that Del Griffith-Neal Page feeling as we walked into our entirely pink room that was aptly named Tiny and Willy's Bunk. Yep, father-son bonding at its finest.

In keeping with the rainbow-flagged theme, we took a lovely stroll through town, stopping in to art galleries, cafes, real estate agencies and bookstores alike, all the while looking for a suitable veggie platter and a decent bottle of wine... OK, that came out all wrong. But most of it is true. Woodstock is such an artsy kind of place that you can't help but to somehow become a part of it. (For the record, the number of times my dad muttered "what the hell do they put in the drinking water here?" in obvious reference to the disproportionately large number of well endowed women walking the streets: 46) I eventually settled on a twelve pack of Rolling Rock, a near mint vinyl copy of Van Morrison's Tupelo Honey (written in Woodstock), and an hour long pre-show nap.

We woke in time to secure the aforementioned veggie platter for the pot-luck, and drove up Plonchmann Lane sometime before 7. Of course, I forgot to bring the directions and the address so we drove right past the place at first, but we eventually got parked, cracked a few beverages, and began soaking it all in. It was pretty hard to believe how much food everyone brought. They had what amounted to the place's garage set up for food and drinks and merch for sale, and there was a solid three tables worth of munchies. The best part was how blatantly obvious it was which food items were brought by whom. Tasty, homemade goodies and rare, aged cheeses on dried fruit preserves: the guys who were there with their wives. Bags of chips and store-bought veggie platters: the dudes. Good times all around. Actually, somebody brought a platter smoked ribs and they disappeared in less than one minute. They were easily the best ribs I've ever tasted.

The inside of Levon's place is nothing short of breathtaking. It's an old converted barn, but it pretty well feels like the world's coolest loft, with ridiculously hight ceilings and every single beam exposed, with every bit of wood shiny and clean. There's a massive stone fireplace along one wall, a flat screen plasma hanging on the wall in the elevated "living room" area, room enough to entertain a couple hundred people, and pictures downstairs which could easily pass for a who's-who of sixties rock and roll. And the place doubles as a recording studio. After seeing Patty Griffin at Trinity St. Paul's in Toronto earlier in the week, I didn't think I'd actually find myself in a better venue four days later, but here we were nontheless.

The opening band was called Bow Thayer & Perfect Train Wreck, and they definitely got the house rockin'. Bluesy, rootsy, country. Beautiful songwriting. It's a tough gig trying to open for Levon when it's still light outside, almost nobody is (overly) drunk yet, and even fewer people have ever heard of you or your music, but they did a fantastic job switching it up, with the lead singer going from guitar to banjo to ukulele and the drummer keeping a perfect, subtle beat all the while, soft when he needed to be, bringin' it home when called upon. By the time the lead singer pulled out the ukulele for a slow lament of a tune near the end, he had the entire audience eating out of his hand. If you're ever in Vermont and get a chance, try to check them out.

After the Train Wreck, my dad and I headed back out to the parking lot for a few more refreshments (by now, I had figured out that it was possible to fit 3 Rolling Rocks into two plastic cups) and a long-awaited outdoor piss break. By the way, Levon's place is built right up against a swamp, and I honestly think that the frogs were louder than the music. It was easily the loudest forest I'd heard since the Peruvian Amazon.

By the time we got back inside, The Alexis P. Suter Band was on the stage, and we were treated to some serious blues. Alexis is a total throwback to the days of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. A deep soulful voice, and a serious appreciation of the way the blues should be sung. Her larger than life stage presence and stature is best described in one of her songs when she belts out: "People pushin', steppin' on my feet / Had to stand 'cause I can't fit in those damn seats". A whole lotta woman, and an even bigger voice. Another highlight was a slowed down version they did of The Beatles Come Together. My dad had disappeared to the bathroom upstairs at that point (another wildcard highlight of The Ramble: when you take a piss at The Ramble, you're pissing in Levon's bathroom, complete with his shower and all of his toiletries right there) and he was feeling the tune so much that he just stayed upstairs for the rest of the set... I honestly thought he was in the shower, trying out Levon's loofa.

By the time Levon and his band came out, we were pretty well feeling no pain, and had made friends with a couple of die hard fans - one who had seen this show once before and was content to shout out the name of every song before they even began playing it (the fact that he was roughly the size of a bald-headed Robert Gallery kept me from pointing out how annoying this habit of his was); and the other who was a dead ringer for Colonel Sanders. Levon brings a special guest up to play with his band every show, and on this night, his guest was Jimmy Vivino, of Conan O'Brien fame. As the large man beside me continuously pointed out, Jimmy V is A MONSTER on the guitar. Hard to argue with the man.

You always hear people talking about the sound quality of a show, and whether or not the venue has decent acoustics... and to tell you the truth, I really had no idea what they were talking about, assuming that one venue was as good as the next and that the sound quality was as good as the guys playing the music. But having this show take place in a recording studio, and in front of only about a hundred people with a cast of all-world musicians, I can now honestly say that I know what it means to have perfect sound quality at a show. It really couldn't have been any better.

Some of the highlights from the show included a house-rockin' version of Ophelia, only the second or third song in, but a song that both The Colonel and I simultaneously announced was worth the price of admission alone. Rag Mama Rag was fantastic, Fanny Mae was just as good, and when Levon took the mandolin and strummed Springsteen's Atlantic City, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven (although, just for the record, I put Atlantic City in the same kind of category as Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone and Don McLean's American Pie, in that the album versions are so perfect that any live reproductions, although a nice homage, just don't measure up). They did another ridiculously great song that I'll never know the name of, but I can tell you that the back up girls kept refraining "I wanna know" and "yes, yes, yes, yes" as Levon sang "Pick me up and stand by me"... It was definitely the best song of the night, and if I ever learn the title, rest assured it will be added to the Eric Foreman record collection.

One of Levon's buddies got up on stage at one point and did a perfect version of The Beatles Saw Her Standing There, complete with McCartney air guitaring and the textbook "hope we passed the audition" finale. Jimmy Vivino did a breathtaking rendition of The Long Black Veil, and even though I've heard that song a hundred times before, it has never meant as much to me as it did on this night. It could have been the setting. It could have been the company. And it could have been the 10 Rolling Rocks. But I had goosebumps the size of golf balls, and it was perfect.

The boys finished with an all-in rendition of The Weight, and before I knew it, we were out in the parking lot, drinking beers with The Colonel as he told my dad to go fuck himself for looking so young (the Colonel received tickets to the same show for his 53rd birthday - if I'd had to guess, I would have put him at not a day younger than 67). I'd had more than enough to know that I was in no shape to drive, and my dad was only marginally better, so we decided we'd trek it back into town, it being only about 2 miles and a beautiful spring night. The good people of Woodstock did well to live up to their reputation of being all about peace and love, because more than a few of the drunken revellers leaving The Ramble offered us a lift. By the time we made it back to Tiny and Willy's Bunk, we were entirely content and completely spent.

We woke up at a decent hour the next day and walked back up to Levon's place to pick up my car. Now, not that I expected everyone to be as responsible as us by refusing to drive while under the influence, but I was a little shocked when we got to the parking lot and mine was the only car left. I guess they haven't exactly implemented that RIDE program in the Woodstock area yet.

All in all, it was an unbelievable experience, and there really is no way to adequately describe it. If you're any kind of a music fan, this is an absolute must do. There's no way to be closer to better musicians, or to experience a show in a better setting. And as far as father-son experiences go, this is one we'll remember for a long time. Thanks to Richie for turning me on to The Ramble in the first place, and a special thanks to Marcel at www.dylanomaniac.blogspot.com for all of his inside tips.

If you wanna check out The Ramble in person, you can score tickets at Levon's site:


Anonymous said...

The name of the song you're looking for is an old Ray Charles song called, "I Want to Know". I'm so glad that you had a great time. Now I can swap stories with somebody. I was beginning to feel like I had just witnessed a bear and a squirrel banging and there was nobody else there to authenticate my story. Now I have somebody to confirm that it is the best concert to attend, regardless if you are a fan of The Band or not.

Krewe Chief said...

Sean, thanks for the pics and the review. It is a unique opportunity to catch Levon singing those songs in that kind of venue.

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