It was 1968, and a crucial center of the East Coast’s music scene was grounded in a rural artists’ colony about 100 miles north of Jersey. There, dozens of bands were attracted by the serenity, mindset and presence of Bob Dylan. Forty years later they’re back again, this time under the magical majesty of The Band’s Levon Helm.
In an ugly pink split-level miles up a mountain road about 5 miles from town in Saugerties, Dylan and five talented musicians – four from Ontario and one from Arkansas –, spent a couple of years making distinctly American music, an amalgam of country, bluegrass, rock n roll and folk.
Dylan’s sidemen became The Band, and their first album was called “Music from Big Pink.”
Dylan, then in his late 20s and decompressing from years of intense drug-powered touring, essentially spent the period hiding in the woods from his crazed fans without playing publicly. Yet he made plenty of music in the basement garage of “Big Pink.”
That music was distributed to fellow musicians – and leaked out to fans in an unauthorized bootleg album called “The Basement Tapes,” a recording that took on legendary proportions.
The Woodstock Music and Arts Fair tried to stage itself as a tribute near Dylan’s home in 1969, but the town fathers would have no part of it. So it was moved 45 minutes west to Bethel, NY, near Monticello.
You wouldn’t know that today: Sales of Woodstock t-shirts with peace signs are available in every other storefront amid the same craft shops, women’s clothing stores, new-age trinket shops and galleries that can be found in quaint settings from Sausalito to Santa Fe to New Hope.
But if you think that Woodstock had given way completely to the tourist lure, you haven’t looked or stayed long enough. For one, there’s an awesome Sunday drum circle that attracts a large and enthusiastic crowd (more than 40 bongo and conga players in the town square on Easter Sunday). And then there is the music. Lots of it in clubs and bars.
But there is one event – sometimes weekly and sometimes less frequently — that drives not only this place’s spirit but also a good part of its economy.
Levon Helm, the Arkansas-born drummer, mandolin player and singer who is one of the three surviving members of The Band, stayed put in Woodstock. Although Dylan disappeared 40 years ago for Malibu and his Never Ending Tour, Helm has been attracting scores of talented musicians to his home and studios, built to resemble a barn on a country road close to town. There, he conducts “Midnight Rambles,” intimate and ecstatic displays of energetic and eclectic music.
While his distinctive tenor is raspier and these days needs to be augmented by other singers — depending on how Helm is feeling on a particular night — he is a very lucky man, having survived throat cancer in the late 1990s and the recent removal of a benign tumor. He was always a small guy, but now he’s a bit emaciated and pale.
But Helm, just shy of his 70th birthday, is quite alive. His drumming is simpler, yet his enthusiasm in unwavering.
Helm has surrounded himself with a host of veteran session musicians – Larry Campbell, Jimmy Vivino, Brian Mitchell, Theresa Williams and others — who have been on the road with many rock greats.
Visitors are free to join these folks in close quarters, crammed into a multilevel barn, sitting just a couple of feet away in a folding chair.
While these shows are no longer staged at midnight (they start about 7:30 and last almost that long), you couldn’t fill four hours with more energy and musical verve. Guests over the years have included Band member Garth Hudson, as well as Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Allen Toussaint, the Max Weinberg 7, Ricki Lee Jones and Dr. John.
At $150 a seat, the Ramble ain’t cheap. But it less than the top ticket to see most stadium or arena shows.
The Easter weekend show opened with a local balladeer, Bar Scott, and then a short speech by one of Helm’s staff, who announced that former Steely Dan member Donald Fagin called from his Woodstock home and begged off with a bad cold; Levon’s voice was acting up and he needed to be continuously hydrated – sounding as if he wasn’t drinking enough water – and please make sure you show Levon how appreciated he was, but anyone who wanted a refund could just ask. No one rushed the door.
The usual piano player Mitchell was no slouch; he brought more than a little New Orleans to the party. After the tumultuous outpouring for Levon’s entrance – which would have come without the coaxing — Mitchell sang lead vocals on the Band’s “The Shape I’m In,” and then Campbell, Theresa Williams and Helm’s daughter, Amy, alternated some powerful vocals on several country and bluegrass standards — until the band broke out with Ray Charles’ “I Want to Know,” and Levon came alive, singing vocals, pumping his fists and flashing his trademark smile.
His band‘s reach was rather incredible, playing Dixieland, Cajun, Mariachi, songs from two Grammy winning albums of recent years, “Electric Dirt,” and “Dirt Farmer,” and a number of The Band’s standards, culminating in intensely exhilarating versions of “Chest Fever,” and “The Weight,” both of which were composed and rehearsed in that same dumpy-looking pink house in Saugerties.
Would the Midnight Ramble be better if Levon had all of his pipes? Sure, but his energy – despite his fragile appearance – was inspiring.
Moreover, it was a rare moment to get to sit around in a studio while world-class musicians whoop it up. By the end, you couldn’t help but stand and cheer.
For information on future shows, go to: Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble
The Dylan lyric ” I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now ” fits attorney Bruce Rosen, a former journalist whose rock and roll heart still beats strong and whose mind is a veritable encyclopedia of the music’s history.