It was out of the ordinary. Something you might even label ‘magic’ happened on Plochmann Lane, maybe 30 Saturday nights a year for the past eight years. What began as a small blues jam, a rent party to help pay the mortgage on his barn home/studio, anchored by the rock solid drumming of Levon Helm, turned into an event that put Woodstock back on the international musical map. Levon, a guy who’d once been on top, during those oh so young years with The Band, and then had been on the bottom, fighting cancer, inches from losing his home, called on some friends with big names, started playing music for music’s sake and climbed back to the top again.
Many contributed to this resurrection. Barbara O’Brien held it together managerially, administratively. Levon’s daughter, Amy Helm, put her heart into the enterprise. A bunch of incredible musicians came to revere the gig. Volunteers peopled the booths and the parking lots. And multi-instrumentalist, producer, and extraordinary sideman Larry Campbell came to run what evolved into a kicking 12 piece band.
“These eight years with Levon were the greatest musical experience in my life and fulfilled every desire I’ve ever had musically,” said Campbell, in a talk some three months down the road from the April death of Helm, the lynchpin of the operation, whose passing certainly had everyone around here, and in the wider musical world, wondering if there would be more Midnight Rambles to experience. Campbell’s words are especially earnest, springing from the thoughts of one who spent seven years on the road with Bob Dylan, after having toured with Cyndi Lauper, K.D. Lang and Roseanne Cash, playing on hundreds of recordings and thousands of dates.
The Rambles will continue.
“Levon’s last words to Amy, Barbara and to me, were to keep it going and Barbara has actually turned that into a catchphrase — it’s honest. That’s what he wanted and we all wanted and the thousands of fans who have come to this repeatedly want us to do. We’ve done four (now five, the latest being July 21 with Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh) Rambles since Levon died and the attendance was great.
“The first was his birthday. We were trying to figure out what’s it going to look like now. It was Amy’s suggestion that we just jump in there and do something as a way to honor him and the music…Until that moment came, we were struggling with, well, now what to do…we can’t go in there and do the same stuff and continue like nothing happened, because it will be less than it was. But after doing that first one, it was evident that we all have the authority and the skills to carry it on exactly as we were doing and that we didn’t need to figure out what this thing needs to be, we could let it become organically what it would.
“Things are moving along right now. There’s still a big black hole without Levon here. For the past eight years he’s been the center of my creativity, business and friendship. We had a great relationship personally and professionally. The fortunate thing is that Levon has left all of us in a really good position to carry on…he gave us something. Being around him gave us all an opportunity to drop a lot of baggage and just appreciate the essence of the music for its own sake. That certainly rubbed off on me. And I feel like it’s rubbed off on everybody else. This is the longest I’ve been with the same group of musicians where we all have a common focus. Everybody is in it for the pleasure of being in it. It feels like we’re carrying that on.
“He started it as a small blues band, you know, let’s get together and play. It was centered around Little Sammy Davis (the singer and harmonica player) and it came to be what it was, with the diversity of material…we had the authority for that diversity because it was Levon at the helm…
“I’m almost tired of saying it, but Levon was one of the handful of people who could perform any genre of American music with authority. You’d believe it, if it’s coming from him. Our association with him has given us that authority. Old songs, blues songs, country, gospel songs, Band songs. Each one of us in the band has strength and credibility in those genres. And you combine it all together and it’s the truth. We’re telling the truth. This band never loses sight of speaking the truth through our musicality.”
Then there are the fiscal aspects of it all.