Up All Night With Levon Helm - Rolling Stone
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Up All Night With Levon Helm

The drummer parties in his Woodstock barn and crafts his best LP in decades

Levon HelmLevon Helm

Levon Helm

Gary Miller/WireImage

After a nearly three-hour journey through American roots music — highlighted by a little Dylan, a little Dead and a handful of Band classics — Levon Helm takes a final bow and disap­pears down a dark hallway. It’s past 1 a.m., and the 150th Mid­night Ramble is over. Helm lives and plays nearly every Saturday night here at his barn in the woods, just about two miles from the center of Wood­stock, New York. Down a corri­dor, the musicians hang out as Helm sits at his kitchen table and unloads the contents of a leather pouch: scissors, Zig-Zag rolling papers and a half-ounce of quality buds. Helm dabs his sweaty forehead with a towel that hangs around his neck and begins cutting up enough weed for a thick joint. Surrounding him are pho­tos from his musical career, which has spanned six dec­ades. “There’s some history in that kitchen,” says his daugh­ter Amy Helm, who often sings with him. “After every Ram­ble, they hold court. Dad likes to call it the Cannabis Cup, and it’s like Cheech and Chong back there. You have to get out quick if you don’t want a contact high.”

Eleven years after being di­agnosed with throat cancer, Helm, 69, has made a surpris­ing comeback: At his worst, nearly 30 radiation treatments reduced that high, lonesome and singular wail that graced some of the Band’s greatest songs — “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Up on Crip­ple Creek” and “The Weight,” to name a few — to less than a whisper. But with time and at­tention, it is back in top form. “All I know for sure is that I can do what I used to be able to do,” says Helm, taking a pull. “I al­ways took it for granted: ‘If we don’t get it tonight, we’ll get it tomorrow night’ — but the dif­ference now is that I don’t miss a night anymore. I want every night to be as much fun as possible, with the least amount of hassle and no regrets.”

The relaxed vibe of the Mid­night Ramble — and the return of Helm’s vocal cords — have inspired him to begin record­ing again. Last year, Helm’s first album in more than 25 years, a mostly acoustic set of country hymns and tradition­al folk tunes called Dirt Farm­er, took home a Grammy. “We thought, ‘Let’s just get togeth­er and record some of these old tunes that Levon grew up with,'” says guitarist Larry Campbell, who co-produced the record and has been play­ing with Helm since he left Bob Dylan’s band in 2004. There was no clock, there was no budget. About halfway into it we all started to realize there was something there. And the story about Levon losing his voice, and the voice coming back, singing songs that repre­sented his roots — that’s pretty heavy stuff.”

In June, Helm released Elec­tric Dirt, which explores gos­pel in the Staple Singers’ “Move Along Train,” two of Muddy Waters’ classic blues, Randy Newman’s “Kingfish” and the feel-good Grateful Dead romp “Tennessee Jed.” “This go-round has been a lot more fun,” says Helm. “Now I know I’ve got enough voice left to do it.”

The Midnight Ramble is Helm’s idea of a perfect house party: old-time music play­ing late into the night, studio-quality acoustics and a rapt audience, many of whom arrive bearing casseroles for the potluck dinner. There is an ap­pealing intimacy at the barn; from the best seats one can literally reach out and touch Helm’s ride cymbal. “He had been dreaming and scheming this for a couple of decades be­fore he set it in motion,” says Amy Helm. “From the begin­ning he knew it was going to be unique.”

In fact, the seed for the week­ly party was planted way back in the 1940s, when Levon was growing up on a cotton farm in Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. As a boy, he’d often walk over to the nearby town of Helena, where blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson hosted King Bis­cuit Time at the KFFA radio station, and traveling variety shows like “Silas Green From New Orleans” and “F.S. Walcott’s Rabbit Foot Minstrels” would set up camp. “They had costumes and dancers and co­medians and a master of cere­monies with a top hat, twirl­ing a cane,” Helm says. In those days, the audience was segregated: “People with red hair and freckles would be on one side, and darker complex­ion on the other. I’d be sitting there right in front of the drummer, just staring at him all night.”

After the main show was over, the MC would announce, “We’re gonna have a Midnight Ramble, so all of you that have to go to work or take the kids to bed, we’ve enjoyed having you. The rest of you, we’ll be right back around.” For an added price, the show would continue for another half-hour. “That’s when the jokes would get spicier, and the girls would do a hoochie-coochie dance,”says Helm. “Back then, to get down to a bikini was like, ‘Goddamn!'”

More than half a century later, and six years after being declared cancer-free, Levon staged his very first Ramble, with a band featuring Chuck Berry pi­anist Johnnie Johnson. With Helm’s voice still weak, he concentrated on drums while Amy shared vocal duties with blues veteran Little Sammy Davis. “I’d just sing along if the songs were in the right key,” Helm says. “Then it started com­ing back.” By hosting the shows, Helm was able to ease back into singing, he says, “without some club owner or promoter telling me to sing a few old ones.'”

Campbell signed on as a kind of un­official music di­rector and right-hand man in 2004. “When I’d heard that he quit Bob, I called him im­mediately,” says Helm, passing a joint across the kitchen table to his old friend. “I just always knew that me and Larry would partner up on something someday.” Camp­bell jumped at the opportu­nity to team up with one of his heroes. “Anything that you can call original Ameri­can music — old time, country, blues, rock & roll, soul — Levon does with complete authority,” says Campbell. “It’s everything I want to play.” Near the end of the set, Campbell re-creates Garth Hudson’s epic, classical-inspired organ intro from the Band’s “Chest Fever.” “If we’re going to resurrect Band tunes, we’ve got to keep them faith­ful, but at the same time they have to evolve to become part of the personality of this band,” Campbell says.

Helm is still pals with Hudson, who lives nearby and sits in once in a while. The drummer sings a killer version of “Oph­elia” and “Rag Mama Rag,” and he closes shows with his signa­ture tune, “The Weight.” And he smiles proudly when back­ing other vocalists on Band classics like “The Shape I’m In,” “W.S. Walcott’s Medicine Show” and “Long Black Veil.” But when Helm speaks of the Band’s timeless music, he calls it “the old stuff.” During two in­terview sessions in his kitchen, he fails to mention the Band by name, as if uttering the words conjures up bad memo­ries. In his autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, Helm speaks of the open wounds caused by the tragic deaths of his bandmates Rick Danko and Rich­ard Manuel, and his decades-old grudge with frontman and guitarist Robbie Robert­son — who holds the publishing rights for the Band’s catalog — over the true authorship of their work together. “When we first started having the Ram­bles, we made it a point not to do the old stuff,” says Helm. “All of a sudden, we started doing it because the guys in the band wanted to. We trusted each other, and it’s been noth­ing but fun.”

Over the years, musicians in­cluding Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint have made their way to the barn. Most recent­ly, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, who lives nearby (and is mar­ried to Libby Titus, Levon’s ex and Amy’s mother), has become a regular. “In the last six weeks I’ve been there most Saturday nights,” says Fagen. “It’s a lot of fun. No muss, no fuss, less work for mother.” Amazingly, for a band that usually exceeds a dozen musicians — including a five-piece horn section — the Ramble groups never rehearse. “We’ll just talk down the songs, like, ‘We’ll do a verse, a chorus, a solo,'” says Helm. “Just plan it out. If we make a mistake, no­body minds.”

Sitting in his kitchen, Helm pops open a glass bottle of Co­ca-Cola and smiles when some­one points out a photo of his 16-month-old grandson, Lavon Henry. And when all the guests clear out, and the last joint is smoked, his wife of 28 years, Sandra, will comedown to cure his munchies. “Mama’ll warm up some pizza, or make me a salad with all kinds of good stuff,” he says. “She makes her salad dressing, too. It’s as sweet as it is sour!”

The musical spirit of Wood­stock, which drew the Band, Bob Dylan and Van Morri­son here in the Sixties, is alive and well in the barn. “There are no Taco Bells out here, boy,” he says proudly. He has his family nearby, his dog Muddy at his feet, and more albums and Midnight Ram­bles on the horizon. “I’ve got the best job in the world,” he says. “My job is to make people feel good, show them a good time, and, my God, what a blessing.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Levon Helm


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