New Year's Eve at Levon Helm's House: Happy 2018
Levon Helm on December 31, 2017
How many Midnight Rambles have I gone to at Levon Helm's home on Plochmann Lane in Woodstock, New York, from 2004 until the present day? Suffice it to say, simply, more than a hundred. Other folks went many more times during Levon's lifetime, and have gone more than I since his passing in April 2012. I've thought of the shows at "the Barn" as concerts, these days, but don't in my head pin the word "Ramble" to them without Levon there, without his regular band members around him. One of the best nights of the year at the Barn was always New Year's Eve — no one knew better how to ring out the old, and sing in the new, than Helm and his shifting company:daughter Amy; the golden horn section of Erik Lawrence, Howard Johnson, Steven Bernstein, Jay Collins, and Clark Gayton; Jimmy Vivino; Jim Weider; Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams; Donald Fagen and Brian Mitchell across the stage from Helm and behind the keyboards; Mike Merritt, and later Byron Isaacs, on bass. Helm's dear friend Little Sammy Davis, harmonica player and electric-blue-suit-wearer of epic ability, rounded out the gang.
New years come, and old years go. It was a couple of years after Helm's death before I enjoyed a night of December 31 there again, but something just impelled me to go as 2017 lurched to a close. Maybe it was the state of the nation, or the general exhaustion many folks seem to be feeling these days, me included, that recalled Helm's dictum to me: When something is bothering you, or hurts, rub a little music on it. Music will make it better.
Amy Helm, whose solo album Didn't It Rain (2015) marked her rich flowering as a singer standing alone, hosted the show on the last weekend of 2017. She couldn't have been less alone, though, on Friday night, and she is blessed with not only immensely talented family and friends, but a whole lot of love from the Hudson Valley community, and from people who road-tripped from afar to be there: a man from Tokyo solemnly took photographs of the framed photographs downstairs; a couple from Los Angeles cuddled in the corner of the standing room upstairs.
Birds of Chicago were Helm's guests, opening the show and joining in as the evening continued. Profiled over the summer in these pages by Kim Ruehl, and earlier by Henry Carrigan, the wife-and-husband duo of Allison Russell and JT Nero are sharp, bright, and beautiful as can be. Russell, in a backless black dress held up by cross-strings and joy, danced barefoot as she sang like an angel. The night before, they'd performed out at The Pines — one of the area's sweetest pretty-new venues — with Connor Kennedy. Kennedy, a singer-songwriter and spectacular guitarist who has been playing on stages in Woodstock, Saugerties, and Kingston since he was in his early teens, served as the bandleader. He's worked with Helm for years, now, and is just off the road from a summer and early fall tour with Donald Fagen and The Nightflyers.
Helm welcomed us all graciously, and announced with a big smile that she thought it was about time for a real old-style Ramble. So help me God, that's exactly what came to pass.
Erik Lawrence and Steven Bernstein emerged and began to groom their horns. Donald Fagen settled in behind his fortress of keyboards. Kennedy cued the band for the first number. And, behind Levon's cherry-red drums, a slim young man sat up straight on Levon's stool, put a little bend into his lower back, and drew his elbows back in a move so like Helm's get-set that I gasped. Lee Falco, 22, who had joined Kennedy and Fagen in The Nightflyers and who was literally raised on Levon's art, shone all night long at his first official Ramble. Zach Djanikian, also a Nightflyer, with his elegant voice and looks reminiscent of a young Rick Danko, slid easily into the mix of a comfortably crowded stage. We were all down home, back home, and happy as anything and everything. They played songs by The Band, old standards, funky beauties, and songs by musicians they clearly love. A brunette woman with a long ponytail, at her first night in The Barn, had told me at the break how much she had loved Steely Dan all her life. When Fagen appeared from the shadows she literally couldn't believe it, until Amy thanked her stepfather for being there. Then my standing-room friend began to weep, quietly, while Fagen grinned at the young men of his most recent band; truly, it's the happiest and loosest I can remember seeing Fagen at a Ramble. He paid tribute to Tom Petty with a song he had not performed in public before, and I can only hope that his stone gorgeous "Mary Jane's Last Dance" makes it onto a recording one day.
Amy and the band members counted down the seconds to midnight, and the staff at The Barn hurried to supply everyone with a cup of sparkling cider. The bluesy, boozy reel of a slow "Auld Lang Syne," shifting its sound depending on which musicians were playing at the time and which were offstage to hug family, friends, and fans, warmed that hewed-wood room in the middle of a cold December, now January, night in the Catskills. "Sing, Sing, Sing" was the perfect choice to light up the new year's night, and Helm and Russell sounded mighty fine together. "The Weight" did Levon proud and then some, with Kennedy taking the "Go down, Moses" verse and Falco getting a big cheer for singing the "Crazy Chester" one, always given to the special guest at Rambles past. 2018 was off to a beautiful start. Thank you, Amy, for keeping it goin' at your father's house. The music is fresh and fine in all hands, old and new.