The Midnight Ramble featuring MMJ, October 16
With no opening band, a Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock is one of the most unique live music experiences one can get. When you add one of the best bands in rock, My Morning Jacket, and another music legend, Donald Fagen, to the bill, you’re set up for a once-in-a-lifetime performance that borders on indescribable…though I’ll give it a shot.
[Stock Photos from Levon's Facebook Page]
Every aspect of the Ramble experience is very different from your typical concert. From the moment you enter the wooded environs of Levon’s home you pick up on a special energy that only exists at that barn. Attendees are encouraged to bring a snack or appetizer to share with the rest of the 150-person crowd leaving Levon’s garage filled with all sorts of cookies, crudities and chips for everyone to enjoy. You don’t have to worry about the light from a cell phone interrupting your experience as a “no cell phone rule” is strictly enforced in the concert area. No photos are allowed and concertgoers are told to respect one another, though that wouldn’t be an issue.
My Morning Jacket came on around 8 and played to the vibe of their surroundings. There was no cape for Jim James and drummer Patrick Hallahan played Levon’s kit a bit more delicately than he would his own. Golden was the perfect opener and you could hear a pin drop as the quintet laid into the gorgeous tune. While James was more laidback than usual – there wasn’t too much room for him to run around – he clearly put his heart and soul into the delivery of each song winning over the few in the audience who weren’t familiar with MMJ.
READ ON for more on last Saturday’s Midnight Ramble…
The Jacket stuck to some of their best known material during the ten-song set, yet did dust off Nashville to Kentucky from their debut album, Tennessee Fire, with Carl Broemel adding sax to the classic tune. James was quite talkative discussing how the “eighth grade” version of himself would never believe where the current version of himself was performing. The singer/guitarist also talked about the band’s first experiences at Levon’s barn when they came to record It Makes No Difference for The Band tribute album Endless Highway and later when they came to a Ramble just to watch. Each member of the band had always wanted to perform at a Ramble and from their wide smiles throughout, they clearly enjoyed the experience.
Once My Morning Jacket left the stage, after about an hour, most attendees retired to the parking lot for some tailgaiting or toured the property including a hallway featuring all sorts of memorabilia from Levon’s career. Around 10PM Levon and his band hit the performance area with each member of MMJ lining the area on the side to take in every moment of Helm’s set. Though Steely Dan keyboardist/singer Donald Fagen often sits in with Levon’s band, it is not a guarantee so it was a thrill to see him sit at the piano. Fagen usually shares the keyboard area with Levon’s regular piano player Brian Mitchell, but on this night it was all Fagen with the exception of a few tunes on which Gov’t Mule’s Danny Louis sat in as well.
The feel-good Ophelia kicked off a marathon two-hour-plus set from Levon’s band showing that age hasn’t slowed the 70-year-old legend down one bit. Guitarists Jim Weider and Larry Campbell were both in the house and took turns dropping one ferocious solo after another throughout the evening. Bassist Byron Isaacs not only impressed with his skills on the upright but also channeled the late Rick Danko with his high-harmony on The Band classic Look Out, Cleveland. Levon band regulars Amy Helm and Teresa Williams each had chances to shine on lead vocals and also added sweet harmonies to most of the songs.
Levon welcomed a number of local guests for parts of his set including the aforementioned Louis, vocalist Catherine Russell and folkie Happy Traum. The addition of Fagen on keys was a huge one as Donald led the band through a rockin’ Shakedown Street, the euphoric Steely Dan chestnut Black Friday and a powerful version of King Harvest. Fagen also offered inspired piano work throughout the night.
Those close to the stage could see written setlists taped to the floor and when I finally couldn’t resist, I took a quick peek as we neared the end of the show and was extremely disappointed that It Makes No Difference was nowhere to be found. Luckily, the stage setlist wasn’t 100% accurate as towards the end of the show Campbell welcomed Jim James out for a tune. James put so much emotion into every word of It Makes No Difference creating the most magical moment on a night full of ‘em.
A little past 12:30AM, this amazing concert came to an end as most Rambles do – with The Weight. All of the evening’s performers came back out with the MMJ boys sharing a mic. Jim James took the first verse, Russell took the second followed by Fagen (instrumental), Levon, Howard Johnson (instrumental), Fagen (singing) again and everyone singing the final verse. Most in the crowd sang along and we all shot each other knowing looks realizing what a special event in which we had just taken part.
If you’ve always wanted to go to a Ramble but haven’t pulled the trigger on actually attending yet, don’t wait much longer. Levon’s voice was surprisingly good and his band is playing better than ever. It doesn’t matter who’s opening, get there as soon as you can to partake in one of the best live music experiences going.
My Morning Jacket Setlist -
Set: Golden, I’m Amazed, The Way That He Sings, Gideon, Nashville to Kentucky, Wonderful (The Way I Feel), Smokin’ From Shootin’, What a Wonderful Man, Anytime, One Big Holiday
Levon Helm Band Setlist -
Set: Ophelia, Look Out Cleveland, (Ain’t That) Good News, Long Black Veil, Hesitation Blues, Blind Willie McTell, Golden Bells*, Shakedown Street, Give a Little, Midnight Highway, Deep Ellum Blues, I Got Reasons, Step It Up**, Tennessee Jed, Calvary, Volver, Black Friday, Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning, Remedy, It Makes No Difference^, King Harvest, Chest Fever, The Weight^^
* – w/ Catherine Russell on vocals
** – w/ Happy Traum on guitar and vocals
^ – w/ Jim James on vocals
^^ – w/ all of MMJ, Catherine Russell and Happy Traum
Band: Levon Helm (drums), Byron Isaacs (bass), Larry Campbell (guitar), Jim Weider (guitar), Danny Louis (organ on a few songs), Donald Fagen (piano), Teresa Williams (vocals), Amy Helm (vocals), Howard Johnson (tuba), Steven Bernstein (trumpet), Jay Collins (saxophone), Erik Lawrence (sax/flute) and Clark Gayton (trombone)