Music writer Bill Flanagan once said that when people lamented the sad state of rock music, he would tell them to go to Levon Helm's Barn in Woodstock on a Saturday night and they would find that rock 'n' roll was alive and well. For the past eight years, Levon, the legendary vocalist and drummer of The Band, hosted his Midnight Rambles -- throwbacks to the medicine shows of his youth in Arkansas that blended all sorts of music that the mighty Mississippi brought south during the early years of what would soon be defined as rock 'n' roll. This was before the confines of genre dictated what was being played, and instead let the music sweep its audience through the passing towns and cities -- imparting just enough local culture and music to create a much larger sound than anyone could have anticipated.
In April, Levon passed away and there was talk of what would happen to the Rambles. Fans were told that the shows would continue, but in what capacity? If Levon had been the descendent, of sorts, of the medicine shows, could the music still carry with it that authentic voice of musical humility -- the natural gratitude of being able to play for and with others for the simple reward of creating music?
And then, this past Saturday night rolled around like so many others before it, and Levon's Barn was open once again for a Ramble, the third since his passing and the first to welcome back a past Ramble guest. Only weeks before, rumors circulated on Levon's Facebook page and then, were confirmed: Ramble regulars Phil Lesh & Sons were playing a show in Connecticut and they would make a pit-stop at Levon's before moving on to their next city.
On the afternoon of the Ramble, I packed my bag and headed north from my Brooklyn apartment towards the rolling hills and farms of Ulster County. The blue skies over New York City stretched 100 miles to Woodstock and the sun pulled greens and blues out of the Catskill Mountains, easily confusing the landscape with the Smokey Mountains or the Ozarks. At 7 p.m., the winding country road leading to Levon's Barn had a line of 50 cars waiting to come together, not as fans, but as partners -- as family -- for this mid-summer Ramble.
I stood waiting for the doors to open, overhearing conversations, almost all of which centered around how many Rambles people had attended, who joined as guests, what songs were played and, of course, the personal stories of Levon. Everyone had a moment to recall -- a tale of breaking bread with Levon in some capacity, in the same way that you naturally would when one welcomes you into the warmth of his living room.
There was a sense of familiarity among the crowd that so often comes from families and friends joining together under one roof -- if only for four hours a week. I had felt this same familiarity years before, when I was 10 years old and my parents took me to my first rock concert. On a similar summer night, we journeyed across the George Washington Bridge to New Jersey -- which was a far and distant land to me -- to see the Grateful Dead. It may have been 20 years earlier, but with the exception of a sprawling concrete parking lot in place of Levon's grass, not much else was different: the music was the epicenter, but the community that the music created welcomed people to something much more powerful than a rock 'n' roll show.
Saturday's Ramble ran for more than four hours, with over 15 musicians playing at any time. I sat on a stool behind Levon's drums for the full Ramble, catching myself drifting between the perfect musical blend of rock, blues, country, jazz and folk music that flooded through the Barn and remembering the first time that I had heard so many of these songs. I was a child listening to American Beauty in my bedroom. I was a teenager who wanted little more than to tell stories after hearing those colorful tales of Ms. Moses and Anna Lee. When "Up on Cripple Creek" led gently into "Till the Morning Comes," I wondered how Levon Helm and Jerry Garcia, two musicians once so different, had their legacies this closely intertwined. Yet, it seems obvious now: the many gifts that Levon and Jerry have offered this world are among the most lasting and significant contributions any musician can impart. They have allowed for thousands of individuals to feel connected to one another through something as intangible as music and the cultural legacy that the music has generated.
At 12:30 am, the Ramble ended as the New Orleans horn section mixed with mandolins and violins for a Dixieland take on "Ripple." A voodoo-blues rendition of "This Wheel's on Fire" followed, and may very well have roused Rick Danko's resting spirit through a type of musical exorcism. Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Amy Helm and Fiona McBain joined Phil and his sons for "Attics of My Life" and "Not Fade Away," before closing the night with a verse swapping, raucous version of "The Weight." The Barn's wooden walls absorbed echoes of the audience singing along to old familiar songs, holding onto the 150 part harmonies for another day -- another Ramble.
What the Rambles have gifted to both audiences and musicians is the freedom for these songs to live far beyond the records -- beyond the radio, beyond the iPods. Without a formal stage, no arbitrary boundaries separating the audience from musicians, fans can sing freely, lending their voices to the songs and bringing forth the feeling that this music is ultimately for all us to carry as our own. Just as Levon modernized the medicine shows of the 1940s and 1950s eight years ago, we are left today with another iteration of music that is harvested from the land and released out into the world.
I can only imagine that the Rambles will continue to change and grow over the next year and beyond -- that they will morph into whatever it is that they are destined to become in this new phase. And, while I would never try to speculate on the natural course of musical evolution, I would venture to guess that the spirits of those souls on whom the Rambles are built will be honored and celebrated, and that music will be played in the way that it was always meant to be played -- by everyone, for everyone and about everyone, leaving the audience and performers to once again blur musical boundaries and simply come back home to each other.