Rock legend Levon Helm (1941-2012) - the drummer and a lead singer for The Band - is batting 1,000 at the Grammys. Last month, when his "Ramble at the Ryman" won Best Americana Album, he made it three in a row - three nominations, three wins - following Grammy Awards for his two previous albums, "Dirt Farmer" (2007) and "Electric Dirt" (2009). Not bad for a 71-year-old survivor of throat cancer, who had once lost his voice completely.
Right up until his passing in April 2012, Levon Helm presided over what he called "midnight rambles" - concerts in his Woodstock, N.Y. barn, where he was surrounded by musical friends and family, including his daughter, singer Amy Helm. His voice may be raspy, but his energetic drumming and high-beam smile could warm the coldest winter night. Following rousing versions of "The Weight" and "Ophelia," Helm invited Marco Werman into his house for after midnight conversation, which would turn out to be one of his last interviews.
"Back porch music" is how Levon Helm describes what he and his band perform in their "midnight rambles." It's the music of the traveling tent shows he used to hear as a kid in Arkansas. Communal music, everybody joining in. A little country. Some rockabilly. A touch of gospel. A tinge of blues. Add the guitars, drums and horns that power rock and roll, and it's the Levon Helm Band in action.
"Ophelia" is the perfect kind of song for this: old timey and fired up -- with plenty of humor and some clever lyrics:
Ashes of laughter
The ghost is clear
Why do the best things always disappear?
Please darken my door.
That's Jim Weider on guitar, followed by Larry Campbell, the leader of the band. Clark Gayton does the trombone honors, and we get to hear Amy Helm (who has her own band, Ollabelle). Levon brings us home with his distinctive drumming, ending in a flourish and a smile of pure satisfaction.
Performing "Ophelia" at The Midnight Ramble, Feb. 4, 2012
Levon Helm - Drums, Mandolin - Vocals
Larry Campbell - Guitar, fiddle, mandolin - Vocals
Clark Gayton - Trombone
Jay Collins - Sax
Steven Bernstein - Trumpet
Erik Lawrence - Sax
Howard Johnson - Tuba, Baritone Sax
Brian Mitchell - Keyboards, Piano, B-3, Accordion, Harmonica - Vocals
Amy Helm - Mandolin, Vocals
Teresa Williams - Guitar, Vocals
Jim Weider - Guitar, Vocals
Byron Isaacs - Bass, Vocals
Randy Ciarlante - Drums, Vocals
Donald Fagen - Keyboard, Vocals