Levon Helm’s barn, where he holds his famed Midnight Rambles in his hometown of Woodstock, is about as cozy a place to hear music as one can imagine. Then again, it had its start as a recording studio, complete with all the accoutrements that musicians are used to having around them to spur on their best, creatively. Furthermore, it’s a rebuilt space – the tragedy of the first barn’s fiery demise having become, over time, an excuse to get it right the second go-around.
There’s a roaring fire for winter nights like these; a nice Oriental rug under the players; tight seating all around the music, with everyone within a wink’s distance from the ever-smiling Helm. The drummer has been treasuring his living-legend status ever since he first realized that the Branson, Missouri idea about having audiences come to you, instead of always heading out in their direction, could apply to rock music as well as country/Western, pop and Vegas-style crooning. Many consider what Levon has built to be as good a revival of Woodstock’s rock ‘n’ roll clubbing heyday as could be imagined, as well as a perfect chance to catch music being made by consummate professionals in a true studio setting.
The players whom he gathers every time that he puts together another Ramble are always sterling. Guests regularly include oddly in-lawed neighbor Donald Fagen of Steely Dan fame, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, Allen Toussaint, Bob Weir, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Phil Lesh, Norah Jones, Billy Bob Thornton and…well, name someone A-list from the music world of recent years and they’ve likely played Levon’s. The band with which he drums and sings is itself a draw, and the bedrock of his new Grammy-nominated album Ramble at the Ryman, with Larry Campbell (of Bob Dylan Band fame), Jim Weider (a member of the later-years Band), Brian Mitchell, Jimmy Vivino, Helm’s daughter Amy and a whole horn section including the likes of Howard Johnson, Steven Bernstein, Clark Gayton and Erik Lawrence, is on hand at each outing.
Usually, the Rambles sell out far in advance, even for standing room, including the upcoming annual “Musical Nod to Richard and Ricky” on January 21, celebrating Helm’s former bandmates, the late Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. There are rare standing-room openings, however, for Saturday, January 14, when Levon’s fellow Hudson Valley legend, Dar Williams of Cold Spring, joins him on the rug.
Considered one of the new folk scene’s top singer/songwriters, as well as a major feminist force in the larger music business, Williams is a consummate performer, able to warm any room in which she is asked to sing. That puts the odds on a particularly hot night when she plays the Ramble this coming week.
Doors open at 6 p.m. for an 8 p.m. concert start at each Ramble in Woodstock. Visit www.levonhelm.com for further information – and those rare reservations currently available.