My Evening at Levon Helm’s Studio

Several years ago (I’m thinking it was 2008), I had the wonderful privilege of hanging out at Levon Helm’s home studio in Woodstock, NY for what was then a monthly house concert called “The Midnight Ramble”. In those days, one could simply order tickets to the event by making a donation, the suggested amount being $100, and the proceeds were used for Mr. Helm’s medical care and to keep up the mortgage payments on his home and studio. Helm has been battling cancer  for the last 20 years, and he finally lost the battle last week, passing at the age of 71.

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I don’t recall who out of our longstanding trio of friend couples suggested the trip. Scott Burnett, my musician buddy whom I have written about elsewhere, grew up in Kingston, NY,  about 12 miles southeast from Woodstock, so he was the official trip guide. He and his wife, Hilary, flew with Merrilyn and I to JFK, rented a car and drove upstate. We stayed at the historic Woodstock Inn, which is basically a motel, made historic by Woodstock ’69 and famous musicians who stayed there. The third couple, Lee and Pam Haldorsen, joined us a few days later,  just in time for the concert.

The Midnight Ramble was an organic affair. Along with your ticket, you also bring whatever food and drink you want and some to share, so it was pot luck. There were three sets of artists, and many shared band members along the way. Alexis P. Suter, an impressive soul singer, opened the show with her band, followed by legendary saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, (who passed away last year).

Finally a somewhat emaciated-looking Helm came out with his mandolin for the first three numbers of his set and then switched to drums afterwards. Helm performed many classic Americana and roots songs, as well as a few of his songs from his years with The Band, although he stayed away from the Band songs that he had been in longstanding dispute with Robbie Robertson over publishing rights. Helm had lost most of the power of his voice from his health issues, but his drumming was still strong and it was a great show nonetheless. A couple years later he released an album called Dirt Farmer and from the quality of his singing on that record as well as subsequent photos it was apparent that he had become stronger in the ensuing years. Here’s a video of him in 2009. Enjoy!

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