The only thing I told my girlfriend about her birthday present was that it would involve a road trip. The side streets in our Brooklyn neighborhood were blockaded by gray snowbanks, so it took us most of a Saturday morning to excavate the car. When we finally merged onto I-87 north and unwrapped our bagels — “My birthday brunch on the Hudson,” Sarah optimistically called it — I popped in a CD I’d burned for the trip. The mix included Bob Dylan’s “Baby Let Me Follow You Down,” a Muddy Waters recording of a Bobby Charles song, and two versions of “The Weight,” possibly the greatest rock song ever written. All these tunes featured the drumming, singing, or production talents of Levon Helm, a living legend of American roots music. An original member of the seminal group The Band, Helm has also enjoyed a highly successful solo career. He resides, jams, and records Grammy-winning records in a hand-built barn in Woodstock. On Saturday nights when he is not on tour, Helm invites some of his musician friends — Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, and Dr. John have made the pilgrimage — to join his 10-piece band in the barn, where they pump out the baddest blues and bluegrass in the Valley. Lucky for Sarah and me, Helm also invites 100 guests to pull up a folding chair and listen. These intimate shows are known as Midnight Rambles.
Sarah and I reached Woodstock late in the afternoon, spent a few minutes checking out the town, then drove up to the base of Overlook Mountain to catch the last few minutes of sunlight. Sarah still had no inkling what her birthday present would be. It wasn’t until we turned off a dark country road onto an unpaved driveway, gave our names at the gate, and parked alongside a floodlit barn that Sarah piped up: “Um, are we at Levon Helm’s house?”
That night’s crowd — mostly middle-aged, wearing a lot of flannel and baseball caps — queued alongside the barn, drinking from plastic cups and shivering in the frigid air. Others warmed their hands over a wood fire near the gatehouse. It was hard to tell the difference between friends of the band and the fans who had paid $150 for a ticket. People milled in and out of a side door marked “Levon’s General Store.” Inside, CDs and T-shirts were for sale, and guests dropped off trays of cookies and cheese for the intermission potluck.
We joined the line and chatted with four apple-cheeked men in front of us. They’d already attended five Rambles apiece, driving from homes in Connecticut and Pennsylvania and sleeping at a nearby inn. “You’re gonna love it,” one of them told us. “When you get in there, it’s all about the music. It’s a cathedral to sound.”
The barn itself is not unlike a cathedral: high, vaulted ceilings; walls of bluestone and pine; racks of recording gear that would make an audiophile squirm with envy; an American flag hung lengthwise from the rafters; only wooden pegs, no nails, because metal would interfere with the acoustics.
And it was, indeed, all about the music. Two hours of high-energy musical comfort food, including country staples like “You’re Running Wild” and old Band favorites “The Shape I’m In” and “Ophelia.” Levon is known for surrounding himself with top-notch instrumentalists, and his current band is no exception — tight and soulful, with the sharpest horn section in all of rock and roll.
As for Sarah, she was in musical heaven. Her mouth hung open at the somber bluegrass harmonies; she hopped up to dance during the boisterous, tuba-driven “All on a Mardi Gras Day.” Later, I thought about why so many people are willing to pay a hefty sum to stand against a barn wall and listen to the blues. Perhaps, with wars raging around the world, it has something to do with holding on to the promise of peace and love that the Woodstock era represented.
Then again, maybe it’s just the opportunity to watch an icon like Levon Helm twirl his drumsticks a few feet from your face.