By the time we got to Woodstock

The majority of my vacation was the kind of thing I tend not to blog about—just hanging out with my friends, their early-rising kids, and some deer in the Poconos. But it might not be a bad idea to recap the end of the trip, a two-day musical extravaganza that began about four hours after I stepped off the bus back from the Poconos.

When I saw the lineup for the Saratoga Music Festival and noticed that it was on a Sunday, it seemed like a good reason to take a road trip. A show with Bob Dylan, Levon Helm, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, and Raul Malo (plus the Swell Season and Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Boys, whom I didn't have all that much fondness for) is pretty much a can't-miss. Then I saw that Levon Helm was having one of his Midnight Rambles in Woodstock the night before, and the night's special guest was NRBQ's Terry Adams and his Rock and Roll Quartet. So, a potentially awesome show soon morphed into an almost certain epic musical weekend where two of my all-time favorite musicians would be playing in a barn in Woodstock. Feelers were put out to others who had expressed an interest in checking out one of the Rambles, tickets were quickly secured, and all systems were go.

In case you're not familiar with Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles, here's the gist: a few years ago, Levon (and if you don't know who Levon Helm is—like the woman next to me on the lawn at Saratoga who said "I don't know who she is"—please go do something else) started having these shows at his barn/studio in Woodstock to cover various outstanding bills, especially those pertaining to the throat cancer treatment that threatened to forever silence one of music's greatest voices. The Rambles were nighttime affairs where Levon would invite a generally cool opening act and then play a long set with his band, which features, among others, his daughter Amy, guitarists Larry Campbell (who used to tour with Bob Dylan and has played on a bunch of cool records) and Jimmy Vivino (from the Max Weinberg 7 and the Fab Faux, among other things), and a stellar five-piece horn section. It's an expensive ticket ($150, or $125 if you can get five or more people to go, as we did), but I've yet to hear anyone complain about it after 100+ such shows over the last few years. And when this is the setting, you can see why:

(Photo by Paul LaRaia)

There aren't a lot of tickets available for each show (I'd estimate about 125-150), so we were lucky to grab five before they sold out (and I endured a moment of panic when I saw that the show was sold out and the money for the tickets hadn't been taken out of my account on the same day, but all was soothed by a quick response from the Studios). We also aimed to get there early so we could snag a good spot, but before we got there, there was a pilgrimage we needed to make.

Having been to Woodstock a few times, I've always had it in the back of my mind to go visit Big Pink, the house in nearby West Saugerties that Band bassist Rick Danko found and lived in with Garth Hudson and Richard Manuel in the late 1960s as The Band recorded "Music from Big Pink" (and the songs with Dylan that later appeared on "The Basement Tapes"). This weekend seemed like as good a time as any to seek it out. The other three travelers agreed, so off we went.

After missing the turnoff for Parnassus Lane the first time up the hill, we spotted it on the way back and made the turn. The road leading to Big Pink isn't really much of a road anymore, mostly gravel and dust. And if there had been a car coming the other way, there might've been a problem. Luckily, we were the only travelers around (though we left just as what appeared to be another group of Big Pink seekers arrived), and after passing a few other houses, there she was.

We stood there for awhile, commenting on how small Big Pink actually was and how such a small place could loom so large in music history. A bunch of photos were taken, aided by the bench that we assumed the current owners put out to appease the pilgrims that came searching. When it all comes down to it, it is just a house, but, to me, a guy who was so moved by The Band that I took a bus and walked through a steady rain to go to Rick Danko's memorial service, it's a little more. I feel better for having seen it. And for having sat down on a bench in front of it for a picture.

After that, we met up for dinner with the fifth member of our party (whose arrival at the restaurant turned our waitress's mood from surly to friendly pretty quickly; we did something to offend her soon after our arrival, but I have no idea what) and soon after headed out to Levon's. We got there a little later than we'd hoped to, and there was already a sizable line of people waiting to get in when we arrived. Our dreams of front-row seats were dashed. But I used the time to snap a couple of photos, since photography was not allowed inside (a completely noble and understandable policy, but a frustrating one nonetheless). As I got the camera out of the car, the heavily lactating, recent mother of nine Lucy Helm stared at me, practically begging for a picture. I obliged.

Once we got in, we immediately scurried around for the best available vantage point. After some hemming and hawing, I found what looked to be a good spot on the top floor, right above all the action (and directly on top of Terry Adams, which was extra cool). The group scattered a bit but all stayed in the general area, and we all had pretty good views (I think the second level may be where it's at for these things, unless you get there early enough for the first few rows, or you're Congressman Maurice Hinchey, who got to sit right next to Levon).

Before the music started, Barbara O'Brien (Levon's manager) brought out one of the nine puppies born on the 4th of July to Muddy and Lucy Helm and said that six were available—free—to go to a good home at the end of the night. I would be lying if I said there wasn't a good ten-second period when I thought to myself, "Sure, I can't have a dog in my apartment, but what if I moved?" Then I realized I was willing to uproot my life to have one of Levon Helm's dog's puppies and sensed that that would be crossing a dangerous line. So I knocked that thought out of my head. But I am pleased to say that the local member of our party drove out of the Levon Helm Studios parking lot with a bowl of dog food on the passenger seat and a new puppy on his lap. My jealousy has almost entirely faded away.

Oh yeah. The music. Terry Adams is one of those musicians whom I could watch all day and not get bored. Unfortunately, I only got to watch him for about 45 minutes at Levon's, but that was cool enough. His band (Scott Ligon on guitar, Pete Donnelly on bass, and Conrad Choucroun on drums) was spot on and did a fine job of following a leader who often looks like even he doesn't know where he's going. It's not quite an NRBQ show, but it's damn sure good sounding enough. The only downer was it looked like Adams's clavinet took a powder early in the set, so he stuck mainly to the piano and DX7. And though Adams called John Sebastian to the stage, he never quite made it, though he did pop up during Levon's set, joining with Adams on what may be my favorite version of "Deep Ellum Blues" ever and Woody Guthrie's "I Aint Got No Home."

It's hard to describe how incredible it was to see Levon Helm play for almost three hours inside his barn, but I'll start by saying that I came awfully close to crying during "Ophelia" I was so happy. As I stood there looking over top of the horn section, I remembered wearing out my "Last Waltz" cassette (purchased at the Staten Island Nobody Beats the Wiz on Marsh Road) listening to that song, and now here I was in the drummer's barn, where, if I just looked to my right, that drummer—who came awfully close to dying—was snapping that wrist and smacking those drums just like old times. I don't really need a picture of that, because I doubt I'll ever forget how I felt right then.

There were tons of other highlights--naturally, "Rag Mama Rag," "The Weight," "Chest Fever," and "The Shape I'm In"; Teresa Williams's version of "Long Black Veil"; Little Sammy Davis's "Fannie Mae"; and Brian Mitchell and the horn section's romp through "All On a Mardi Gras Day," to name a few--but the whole night was just about as perfect a musical experience as you could get. It was a room full of people who all wanted to be there, who weren't there just because they had nothing else to do on a Saturday night. There was an almost palpable sense of love and respect flowing throughout the room all night and a communal feeling of happiness—both from the musicians and the crowd—that washed over the barn. It was something.

Of course, there's one in every crowd, and this one had a woman who had maybe been a little overserved before arriving at the barn (alcohol is not allowed inside, though I think some violated that rule) and occasionally felt compelled to shout out after a song's conclusion. Her loudest declaration, delivered after a particularly powerful performance from Levon and crew, sounded to me like "I don't know whether to floss or shit my pants," which, in retrospect, was probably the only slightly more logical "I don't know whether to applaud or shit my pants." But I choose to go with what I heard initially. In fact, I may make it my new catchphrase. In any case, Levon took it all in stride, saying "Be careful" with the grin and chuckle that seems to accompany him wherever he goes now.

There were a lot of other grins and chuckles as "The Weight" came to an end and the crowd headed back out into the starry Woodstock night. One of the Helmland Security guards said I looked like I was in shock when I left. I don't doubt it.

Sometimes it's shocking just how good life can be.


your sister said...

OK. I'm almost crying and I wasn't even there. I think I dropped the ball.

I am glad to see you've landed a title for your next book, though:

"I don't know whether to applaud or shit my pants: My rock-n-roll on-the-road life."

Mr. Bad Example said...

Oh, there'll be other opportunities, I'm sure. Woodstock's lovely in the fall. And winter. And spring. And next summer.

Second book already titled ("Good for You"); will put title suggestion on list for third book.

emma said...

Levon Helm *and* puppies? Just shoot me now.