Larry Campbell performed with Levon Helm for the last eight years of the revered drummer’s life. Though the multi-instrumentalist has had plenty of notable experiences in music, not least being the years he spent on tour with Bob Dylan between 1997 and 2004, he tells Rolling Stone, “It got to the point where it felt like my whole career was just a pathway leading to Levon’s barn.”
Helm’s supporting cast reconvened a few weeks ago for the first Midnight Ramble since his death in April, at the bandleader’s timber-framed barn in Woodstock. Campbell knew he’d be emotional, but he was even less prepared for the Ramble last Friday – the second without Helm, who established the homey, joyful tradition in 2004. The next Ramble is scheduled for June 23rd, with guest David Bromberg.
“The first one, we went in with the attitude that it was a tribute to Levon,” Campbell said. “It was his birthday, and the first [show] since he died. We were all sort of prepared – we had him in mind, and he was there in spirit.” The second Ramble, he said, “was more back into the routine. And I’d look over to my left, and he wasn’t there. His absence was really felt.”
For Amy Helm, the former Band member’s daughter, both shows were understandably hard. “Grief is a very strange thing,” she said. “You never quite know when it’s gonna reach up and grab you.”
During last week’s Ramble , she found herself “listening differently.” She was starting to hear the songs in new arrangements, and she began thinking about adding more songs to the repertoire.
“There were handfuls of songs he loved that we never did work up,” she said.
The Midnight Rambles were formed in a spirit of community, said Amy, who along with Campbell co-produced Helm’s 2007 comeback album, Dirt Farmer, after he’d undergone intensive treatment for throat cancer.
“He came to the whole industry with a very different take, and he broke the rules,” said his daughter. “I see the Ramble as a national musical landmark, kind of a living museum of music.”
Campbell first met Helm in the late Seventies, when he was playing a weekly gig with Kinky Friedman at New York’s Lone Star Café and Helm was a regular at the club with the reformed Band. They worked together for the first time a decade ago, during sessions for an album that Campbell was producing for the Dixie Hummingbirds. (The album featured Campbell’s original gospel song “When I Go Away,” a highlight of Helm’s 2009 album, Electric Dirt.) When Campbell left Dylan’s band, Helm called and said, “Come on, let’s make some music.”
Over the years, the Ramble grew from a modest affair featuring Helm’s blues band into an all-star showcase, with guests including Mumford & Sons, Mavis Staples, members of the Grateful Dead and many others. Campbell says the band is starting to field phone calls from musicians looking forward to paying tribute to Helm at the barn; the day before he spoke to Rolling Stone, he’d been talking to Rosanne Cash and Buddy Miller.
For now, though, they’ll let the Ramble “be what it wants to be and not force anything,” he says. “The beauty of it has always been its honesty. As long as we don’t mess that up, I think we can successfully keep this going.”
In the meantime, he hopes to finish a long-overdue album with his wife and fellow Helm bandmate, Teresa Williams, a project that was started before the drummer’s death.
“There are a couple tracks we’re hoping we can use that he played on,” Campbell said.
Amy Helm said her father left behind plenty of unreleased material that could see the light of day – “definitely some amazing things we’ll be able to share.” But it’s the intimate experience of the Midnight Ramble that will really carry on her father’s legacy.
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“Even when his voice struggled, his drumming continued, and he could outplay anybody,” she said. “He was truly a force of nature, and also a visionary thinker in terms of how to create sustainability for the working musician.
“People want to be a part of something,” she said, and the way the Ramble brings musicians together with their audience, “it’s a show without a construct. It’s a party. That’s part of its magic. We’re honoring him, and hopefully doing what he would want us to do, by building opportunities for music to be made and people to have a good time.”