Ironically, Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble doesn’t start at 12midnight. Doors open around 6pm, and patrons get there as early as possible to reserve the best seating, or most often, the best standing room in the house, which at its furthest, is only 30 or so feet away.
Held in the legendary singer-drummer’s home/recording studio, about 200 guests crowded in to get as close as possible to one of the three remaining members of The Band. The show kindles a kind of intimate atmosphere that is rendered by the fact that you are literally in Levon Helm’s house, beneath vaulted ceilings and long wooden beams, where the garage serves as a storefront and the bathrooms have real showers in them.
On this night, Helm kicked the show off with “The Shape I’m In,” and despite a recent hospital stay, he was great shape. Auxiliary band member (now that he lives in LA) Jimmy Vivino – guitarist and bandleader from the Conan O’Brian show – flew in just for the show and led a spirited “He’s God.” Helm joined voices with his lovely daughter Amy Helm on “Ain’t That Good News” and “Got Me A Woman,” where father and daughter switched spots, with Amy on drums and Levon seated, singing and playing mandolin center stage. Bandleader/multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell led on “Deep Ellum Blues,” while Helm showed off his fancy footwork, wearing a huge grin and boogying right down to the floor. Keyboardist Brian Mitchell sang on the ever-popular “Bourgeois Blues,” and the horn section grew deeper when Clark Gayton switched from trombone to tuba and Erik Lawrence wailed on saxophone.
The acoustic version of “Attics of My Life” was one of the night’s most significant songs, and Amy Helm, Theresa Williams and Larry Campbell left the audience quietly holding their breath with their soft rendition. Although Helm’s recognizable voice is now raspy from years of rock and roll life, he still shined strong on the familiar “Ophelia,” where the delighted audience sprang into a standing ovation. The grand finale of the evening was of course the much anticipated classic “The Weight,” here a celebration of life, music and survival.
There are no signs guiding the way to Helm’s hidden home, which at night can be a bit tricky to find, and tickets to the show are usually sold-out well in advance, but don’t let that discourage you from attending. Though Helm is only 70, he has surpassed the premature death of his bandmates Rick Danko and Richard Manuel. Watching Helm joyfully perform songs that literally changed music history is itself one of the most enjoyable parts of the evening, and even though there isn’t any photography or video allowed at the Rambles, this isn’t a show that you will ever forget.
With loud guitars and just the right amount of blues, country and rock blended together, the clean cut looking Dirty Guv’nahs from Knoxville, Tennessee, kick-started the show with songs like “New Salvation,” “Saguaro” and “We’ll Be the Light.” The Guv’nahs had a lot to prove, having just recorded their album “Youth is In Our Blood” right there at Helm’s studio (in that very room) back in July.
Moving like a young Mick Jagger, singer James Trimble grooved all over the small stage throwing his head back and letting his accent loose across the satisfying tracks. Fittingly, the Guv’nahs capped off their performance with a rambunctious version of the Stones’ “Loving Cup,” leaving the crowd pleading for more.
Review and photos by Lindsay Malachowski