It was well past midnight when Levon Helm called opening act My Morning Jacket back to the stage to close out their epic concert with a euphoric rendition of “The Weight,” featuring Helm, Jim James and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen swapping lead vocals. It was the perfect way to Saturday”s majestic Midnight Ramble, part of a regular series of concerts held in a barn at Helm’s Woodstock, N.Y. home, and featuring a rotating cast of local musicians and special guests. Helm recently had a procedure to remove a growth on his vocal chords, and yet he belted out the “Go down Miss Moses” verse like it was 1968, and was beaming uncontrollably.
Four and a half hours earlier My Morning Jacket took the stage in the tiny barn, which was filled to capacity with fans shocked they were about to see an arena-level band play to a crowd of about 250 people. Opening with a tender acoustic version of “Golden,” the group played an hour-long set that drew from every one of their five albums, just two days before they begin playing them in sequence at New York’s Terminal 5. By the second song, “I’m Amazed,” they plugged in and rocked out as if they were at Madison Square Garden. “Can you believe we’re all here?” frontman Jim James asked the crowd midway through the set. “To say it”s an honor would be an understatement. If you’ve been here before you know what a gift from god it is. If if you haven’t, you’re about to get your mind blown.”
It was evident from the opening moments of “Ophelia” that Jim James was right. Although Helm is still recovering from the throat surgery and preserving his voice, on this Band chestnut he let loose. For most of the night he stayed behind the drum kit and let his incredible band — which includes his daughter Amy Helm, Donald Fagen, guitarist Larry Campell and his wife Teresa Williams — handle the singing. One of the great joys of the Midnight Rambles is to watch the seventy-year old Helm flawlessly play the drums as he grins from ear to ear. My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Hallahan sat about four feet behind the kit all night, watching Helm’s every move.
The set list was, in many ways, a journey through the Great American Songbook. Forty-three years ago Bob Dylan gave the Band a musical history lesson during the early Basement Tapes sessions, teaching them material ranging from from the Carter Family to the Impressions. Although Levon was absent from most of those sessions, his shows draw from the same songbook — though it has now been updated to include everything from Steely Dan to the Grateful Dead and, of course, the Band. Fagen, who spent behind the piano on the far left side of the stage, took lead on a jazzy “Shakedown Street,” Steely Dan’s “Black Friday” and the Band’s “King Harvest (Has Surely Come).” He’s described these shows as the most musically rewarding thing he does, and his presence elevated the evening to an even higher level.
The group was lead by Larry Campbell, whose tenure as Bob Dylan’s guitarist from 1997 to 2004 coincides with the greatest period of the Never Ending Tour. He played on far bigger stages in those days, but it’s easy to tell he prefers the musical freedom Dylan’s former drummer gives him. He sang lead on a killer “Chest Fever,” which he proceeded with a long guitar solo. Teresa Williams sang a delicate “Long Black Veil,” while guest Happy Traum (introduced as the “unofficial musical mayor of Woodstock”) reached way back to the 1930’s with a sing-along version of Blind Boy Fuller’s “Step It Up and Go.”
Jim James spent most of the show sitting on a staircase near the back corner of the stage, mesmerized, and occasionally playing air drums. Near the end of the set he was called back onstage to sing “It Makes No Difference,” which he covered on a Band tribute album three years ago. Summoning the spirit of Rick Danko, James belted much of the song out with his eyes closed. It was easily one of the night’s high points. Afterward, James stuck around near the stage as the audience and musicians began to filter out. “That was so emotional,” James told Rolling Stone. “Rick Danko is one of my favorite singers and musicians. That song has always meant a lot to me. Playing it here tonight is beyond anything I thought could have happened in my life. When I saw the light shining down on Levon here I thought we were all in heaven. This is as good as life can get.”