(Michael Perkins and I are finishing up work on The Pocket Guide to Woodstock. The sad news that Levon Helm is in the final stages of cancer means that we’ll have to drop the following passage about his Midnight Rambles written after I saw him perform in February.)
The 1960’s excitement isn’t entirely lost. In recent years, Levon Helm, The Band’s drummer, has enjoyed a silver-haired renaissance, winning Grammies for three records, and by hosting Midnight Rambles at his modern timber frame studio barn at 150 Plochmann Lane. The place feels like a large living room, with its bluestone fireplace and Turkish red carpet in the center where the musicians play to the crowd seated in folding chairs or standing up in the balcony. Helms’s first studio barn was lost in a fire. He fought throat cancer in 1996. Two of his Band mates died much too young—Richard Manuel felled by suicide at 42, Rick Danko by hard living at 55. Yet Helms is nothing if not a survivor. Born to an Arkansas cotton farmer, he joined a touring band right out of high school, met four Canadians who became his compatriots in the Band which played behind Bob Dylan and had their own magical run until The Last Waltz farewell concert of 1976. Now he takes the stage at a Ramble and sits at his drum kit in the front corner bathed in a soft purple spotlight. He has the lean-faced charisma of an old cowboy. As the musicians play old Band favorites mixed with roadhouse blues driven by a brass section and a piano, he pounds away at the drums, all skinny shoulders and flying elbows. His smile flashes, the brightest instrument in the room. The guy couldn’t look happier to be alive.
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