First, I hauled ass from the train to the Port Authority, bought my ticket from a woman at the Trailways window who helpfully told me, "Oh, I don't think you'll make it," ran to the other side of the terminal, and then made the bus (beeyotch) with a solid 30 seconds to spare.
Then, after the bus pulled in at Kingston and I realized we had enough of a layover, I hightailed it to the pretzel-doorhandled Deising's Bakery, where I quickly purchased one of their unbeatable chocolate crullers and five of the finest pretzel sticks ever created by human hands (only available on Fridays and Saturdays).
Then, after arrival in Windham, I went with my mom and retired journalist Bryan Chambala to Hartmann's Kaffeehaus in Round Top, NY (on the awesomely named Heart's Content Road), for the best French Dip I've ever had and a dessert that was about 98% whipped cream and quite good. An elderly German couple also put me in charge, after a fun game of parking lot pantomime, of alerting "zee handicapped man vith zee chauffeur in zee vite car" that they were blocking said elderly couple from opening their driver's-side door.
Then Mr. Chambala and I were turned away at the bowling alley at the Winter Clove Inn ("the lanes are all broken") before finding success at the Bowlers Club in Saugerties, where the computers were likely among the first ever sold to bowling alleys, pins flew out of the rack twice during the first game, and a 14-year-old was working the bar. In other words, the perfect place for bowling on one's birthday, even in the midst of two larger, louder, and perhaps more age-appropriate birthday parties. The new shoes got their first two games in and produced a solid 167 and 174. And it only cost $4.50 for me to bowl two games.
With time slipping away, we made a dusk visit to Big Pink, which we found again after a few missteps.
Then I got all confused and sent us in the wrong direction twice as we headed to dinner at the Black Bear, where we met up with drummer extraordinaire Johnny Macko and my superstar blogger sister and her gentleman friend.
After shoving some food down (and while my sister and her gentleman friend continued eating and imbibing before making the same journey), Misters Macko and Chambala and I headed to Levon Helm's place on Plochmann Lane, which, it turns out, is harder to find when it's dark and it starts raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock. But we got there, and there was a shorter line than last time, so we were in good shape. We initially took spots in the third row, but after some scouting we settled on seats in the front row, but on the side, right near the piano and organ. Any seat there is fine, but these weren't bad at all, and we didn't stay in them much during the main set anyway.
A trio from Finland (whose names I've forgotten, but they played fiddle, guitar, and Dobro) opened things up and endeared themselves to me almost immediately by singing Richard Thompson's "Keep Your Distance." Then came Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers, who, based on the fact that their last album was broken down into movements, I thought I would find just OK. But they were way better than that and even did a Jimmy Martin song ("Ocean of Diamonds"), which almost certainly proves that they are avid Tinsel and Rot readers. I couldn't see her from my seat, but apparently a woman in the front row was nodding off hard during the Punch Brothers' set (and by both their playing and Thile's declarations about how happy and honored they were to be there, the band didn't see it either), and she and a man I'm assuming was her very embarrassed husband bailed after the set and gave their seats to a couple of guys behind us. If they are indeed married, I believe "forcing us to leave front-row seats at Levon's" is solid grounds for immediate divorce.
Then came the main event. I had the thought a few days prior that maybe going back to Levon's was a mistake. Maybe I should have just let the near-perfect first-time experience stand and leave it at that. Surely, it wouldn't be better the second time around, particularly because (a) Little Sammy Davis was still recovering from a stroke (get well, sir) and (b) Phil Lesh's phriggin' ridiculous New York City marathon run assured that Larry Campbell and, presumably, his wife would not be at Levon's this time around.
What a stupid thought that was.
Yes, it was a shorter set than last time, likely owing to the aforementioned absences, but it may have been an even better show. Why? Well, there was "Ophelia," "Slippin' and Slidin'," and "Crash on the Levee" in the 2,3, and 4 holes, respectively. There was Brian Mitchell doing his best Dr. John on "Such A Night." There was "Evangeline" in the acoustic set, followed by Amy Helm singing "All La Glory," nervous at the start then downright joyous when she nailed it.
And then there was that bushy-haired, crazy-bearded dude over in the corner. Amy Helm whispered something to bandleader Jimmy Vivino, and he responded, "Tell him we got gear...just come on and play." But it seemed he didn't want to just play, so gear was set up, and after a bit out walked the Santa-like Garth Hudson with his accordion strapped on and ready to go, as Vivino said, "And it's not even Christmas yet!" After shaking hands with the guys in the band and getting warmed up, Garth joined in on "All on a Mardi Gras Day" and stuck around for the closing trio of tunes, "Tears of Rage," "Shape I'm In," and the standard Ramble finale of "The Weight," with Punch Brother Gabe Witcher belting out the "Crazy Chester" verse and Cassandra Wilson joining in on the choruses.
[EDIT upon sister's request: Plus, Levon made out with my sister. OK, he just kissed her. But she may have been willing to go further. Probably less likely to pursue Garth.]
Seriously, you oughta go. I know money's tight these days, but you'll never be happier spending $125 or $150 than you will after you leave Levon's.
But back to me.
The birthday fun continued the next day at the incomparable Sweet Sue's in Phoenicia, NY, where pumpkin pancakes were devoured and I almost achieved my goal of finishing a "short stack" before my stomach informed me that four more bites would not be a good idea. So I admitted defeat, which never tasted so good.
It was a fine birthday.
(The fun concludes Wednesday night at Maxwell's, with Maybe Pete around 9:30 0r so [Chris Skel beforehand, Adam and Dave's Bloodline after]. Come on out for the fun.)