Set for release on November 20th, the third installment of the Levon Helm Band’s Midnight Ramble Sessions was one of the beloved bandleader’s final projects before he died in April. With producer Brendan McDonough, Helm sorted through hundreds of gigs recorded at his barn in Woodstock, New York, where the former singer-drummer of the Band created a truly communal musical experience during the last decade of his life.
“He wanted to build an environment where music was holding its rightful place,” Helm’s daughter, Amy, tells Rolling Stone. “If he’d had his way, he would have had the Ramble every night. He always said that.”
On the day that he died, Helm implored those closest to him to “keep it goin.'” Those words are now the slogan for the rejuvenated Ramble, which hosted a tribute to the Band featuring surviving member Garth Hudson on Friday night. “Love for Levon,” an all-star concert benefitting the effort to keep the barn and studio in the hands of Helm’s estate, will take place at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey, on October 3rd. Guests include Roger Waters, My Morning Jacket, Ray LaMontagne, Gregg Allman, John Mayer, Mavis Staples, Lucinda Williams and many more.
Amy Helm, a member of the Midnight Ramble Band and her father’s Dirt Farmer Band (who play at the Iridium in New York tonight), is preparing her own solo debut for the spring. She is currently on her own tour, including dates opening for Los Lobos. She credits McDonough – a sound engineer, stage manager and longtime friend of the family – with assembling the new album like an actual Ramble, with plenty of guest appearances (among them Allen Toussaint and Chris Robinson) and an acoustic set in the middle.
“They made some cool, unpredictable and unique song choices,” says Helm. “They highlighted some of the real core aspects of the Ramble.” The set opens with Levon singing the sassy, brassy “Same Thing” and closes with his feisty take on Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”
The idea for the Ramble grew out of the misfortune that Helm experienced in the Nineties, when he was first diagnosed with throat cancer. “He walked through a lot of real dark times when he first got sick,” says his daughter, who has two boys of her own. “There was nobody around, no scene, no Ramble. He was really walking through bankruptcy and illness. He always had the support and love of the community here, but in terms of building something, he really started from scratch with Jimmy Vivino and Larry Campbell and some others.”
Modeled after old-time traveling medicine show performances, the Ramble reinvigorated Helm’s career, sparking the Grammy-winning 2007 album Dirt Farmer and its follow-up, 2009’s Electric Dirt. Helm’s joyous approach to singing and playing drums was always apparent in the music he made, and it bubbled over into his life, his daughter says.
“For musicians to watch him, it was a constant reminder of pulling yourself back to that intention,” says Helm. “Musicians like my father inspire people so deeply not just by doing some incredible, bad-ass thing on their instrument – they make you want to reflect that same [joy], your own version, in whatever you’re doing. That’s the greatest teacher you can have.”