Memories of Levon’s magic

We’d been in Phoenicia for two years when I met Levon Helm. Many locals had up-close-and-personal stuff to say about him: his house fire, his continued rocking at local bars, his cancer and the subsequent loss of his voice, and, in 2004, his Midnight Rambles. Launched to pay his medical bills, this concert series in the barn/studio adjacent to his (rebuilt) home was a hot ticket.

Against the odds, Levon was reportedly in excellent form. Cancer can kiss his hillbilly ass. Although he was not singing due to radiation treatments, elder bluesman Little Sammy Davis was nailing the vocal duties in the Levon Helm Band.

By this time, I was a teacher’s assistant in Mt. Tremper. I learned firemen and teachers got in free to the Rambles, which was great because we were struggling financially. With that in mind, the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Holly and I headed over to see Howlin’ Wolf’s guitarist Hubert Sumlin, Ollabelle, and the Levon Helm Band.

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I would’ve paid the $100 ticket price, but when I said, “I’m a teacher,” sure enough, the door guy let me in, gratis, smiling wide. Below the rough-hewn beams, we joined a sold-out crowd of about 250 in the cozy space. Seating was laidback in those days, folks cross-legged before the small carpeted stage.

Ollabelle was killing it with their blend of folk, soul, and rock and roll. Their T-Bone Burnett-produced eponymous CD was freshly out, and the band had a bit of the golden buzz. It was my first time seeing magnetic Amy Helm. I was struck by how she resembled her dad when she played mandolin.

I spotted her dad during their set, hanging out, embracing audience members, grinning wide. But he was so skinny. Fragile. I worried. I wondered if he’d actually be getting behind the kit.

Then he did. And that was magic. Like Disney-style magic. He grabbed the sticks, and a glow emanated, expanding his presence across the stage, into the room. I’d never seen anything like it. All his frailty vanished, and first the band, then the entire room, filled with energy. Like a tent revival.

Amy in particular connected to her dad, and he to her, wordlessly. Then someone put a microphone in front of Levon, and, to our astonishment, he opened his mouth and sang. Sang the shit out of those songs. We lost it. Levon and Amy duetted on a few tunes, smiling like welcome to the miracle.

Later, a sweaty Levon, still in his vibrant, music-enhanced state, pressed the flesh, touching people like a wise elder, thanking folks for coming to his home. I shook his hand, told him I sure appreciated his teachers-get-in-free policy. To my amazement, he bowed to me, hand to his chest, and in that grosgrain growl, thanked me. He knew teachers didn’t get enough respect, and anything he could do to remedy that, well, he was gonna do it.

Later, Levon and his band, with Hubert Sumlin, turned the place into a raucous juke joint; laughter, howling, and foot-stompin’ grooves that went into my marrow and stayed there. The Barn was still rockin’ when we drove away, spent from exhilaration, throats raw from yelling.

I would come to know a few of Levon’s band and crew, those who spun a circle of love around the man, helping him wring a surprising fourth act out of his life, when Grammys glowed, and the once-forsaken road beckoned. Levon shared this windfall of time with the community, constantly giving back. I actually got to make music with him once. But that’s a different story.

Like a wily musician in a folk tale, Levon, it seemed, had outfoxed the devil, and would continue to avoid the inevitable. Why would I think that? Because I saw Levon do magic. At the Midnight Ramble. Sadly, he did, in fact, move on eight years later. But those were amazing, charmed years.

And the magic remains.

Read more installments of Village Voices by Robert Burke Warren.