OH. MY. GOD.
I’d never been to one of Levon Helm‘s Saturday night Midnight Rambles at his home/recording studio in Woodstock, but over the years I’d heard lots about them. I knew it would be fun, but I never realized just how much fun.
Intimate? It really was like standing around in somebody’s living room and watching a world-class band crank out some of their favorite songs. For more than two hours, I stood no more than 15 feet away from Levon Helm as he churned through some of the funkiest backbeats I’ve ever heard. I was begoggled.
Helm wasn’t singing. He’s still on doctor-ordered vocal rest after a successful throat operation in August, but that certainly hasn’t slowed him down any behind the drum kit.
Larry Campbell – Dylan’s longtime guitarist – led the band, and what a band it was. A fabulous four-piece horn section, including the great Howard Johnson on baritone sax and tuba. Gruff-voiced Brian Mitchell behind the grand piano. Teresa Williams and Amy Helm adding not only plenty of angelic harmonies, but also some serious sass and sizzle at the microphone. And, oh yeah, there was Jim Weider – the guitarist in the Band’s post-Robbie Robertson days – firing up guitar licks that seemed to come flying in from some fifth dimension.
The songlist was sublime. There were plenty of Band classics – from the opening “The Shape I’m In” to the show-closing “The Weight,” with stops along the way at “Long Black Veil,” “Chest Fever” (with a crazy-good Campbell-Weider guitar duel) and a towering rendition of “It Makes No Difference” with Williams and Amy Helm pouring their hearts out.
And if you never paid serious attention to the latter-day incarnation of the Band, the fiery Campbell-Weider duet on “Remedy,” would definitely find you re-thinking your position.
There was a nod to the Dead with “Tennessee Jed” (also on Helm’s great new album, “Electric Dirt”) and a sweet, folksy version of “Attics of My Life.” There were blues, honky tonkers, a country waltz, soul (Amy Helm’s reading of “Everybody Loves a Winner” was one of the highlights of the night) and a heaping helping of strutting New Orleans funk, including “Deep Ellum Blues” (with Helm on mandolin and some wild hoochie coochie dancing) and “All On a Mardi Gras Day’ (with the horn section parading through the audience).
Oh, and then Rodney Crowell happened to drop by as a previously unannounced special guest. He sat in with the band for a mid-show three-song mini-set of the steamrollin’ “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” the aching “Til I Gain Control Again” and the Everly Brothers’ “Brand New Heartache.” And then he came back at the end of the night to sing several verses of “The Weight.”
And yes, that would have been more than enough excitement for one night.
Except that Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels had already torn up the stage with 45 minutes of first-rate rock ‘n’ soul outta Detroit. At the age of 64, Ryder doesn’t jump around the stage any, but when you’ve got a voice like his, well, you don’t have to. The man can still sing.
“Little Latin Lupe Lu.” “Jenny Take a Ride.” “Sock It to Me, Baby.” Bam, bam, bam – right out of the gate. “We’ve been onstage for seven minutes, and we’ve already done three songs,” Ryder said with a chuckle. And while everybody else in the place was still trying to catch their collective breath, Ryder and his young five-piece band launched into the brand-new powerhouse protest song, “The Promise,” proving that Ryder certainly isn’t living on his past glories.
There were a few more new tunes – the reggae-ish “The Flag Still Flies” and the kick-ass rocker “Thank You, Mama” – his classic remake of Prince’s “When You Were Mine” and the pull-out-all-the-stops, tear-down-the-walls capper of the show, “Devil With the Blue Dress.”
I repeat: OH. MY. GOD.
And longtime Helm cohort Little Sammy Davis kicked off the evening with a short, 15-minute set of sit-down acoustic delta blues classics, including “Sitting On Top of the World” and “Rollin’ and Tumblin’.”
Yes, $150 per ticket makes for a mighty pricey night out on the town, but – you know, I never thought I’d say this – it just might be worth it.
Levon’s Rambles through the end of November are all sold out, but tix are still available for shows on December 5 (guest TBA), December 12 (with Joe Louis Walker) and December 19 (with Joan Osborne).
MITCH RYDER & THE DETROIT WHEELS SET LIST
Little Latin Lupe Lu
Jenny Take a Ride
Sock It to Me, Baby
When You Were Mine
The Flag Still Flies
Thank You, Mama
Devil With the Blues Dress
THE LEVON HELM BAND SET LIST
with special guest Rodney Crowell