Stan Johnson Remembers Levon Helm

Levon Helm's Ramble On The Road, with Bob Weir, 2011
Levon Helm (left) with Ramble On The Road and Bob Weir, at moedown 2011

Story and photographs by Stan Johnson

A buddy called to tell me about Levon Helm’s passing. We had talked often about going to one of Levon’s Midnight Rambles in Woodstock, but now all that’s left is memories.

And there were many good ones. My favorite Band show was in 1986 at JB’s Theatre, a former roller rink in Albany’s Westgate Plaza, now a music store. It was the entire Band line-up except, of course, for Robbie Robertson, who never re-joined the Band following the Last Waltz. JB’s was packed, but during a few of the quieter numbers, the audience in front and in the middle actually voluntarily sat down on the floor so everyone in the back could see. (I’ve never seen this happen at any other show anywhere.) The place seemed to shrink from a crowded, standing-room-only barn to an almost intimate, large living room.

I can’t remember much of the set, but I think you can find it on the internet. What I do remember was that they played so well together that I finally realized why Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and George Harrison had such high opinions of these guys.

Less than a month later, Richard Manuel was dead by his own hand. I was pretty unhappy and wrote a letter about it which was printed in Metroland.

The Band played on the bill at the Palace Theatre (or was it Proctors?) during the ’80s with Hot Tuna and guitarist Roy Buchanan, which finished with everyone on stage for an encore jam.

I also saw the Band a couple of times at SPAC: Once opening for Little Feat, or maybe it was the other way around. My memories of that show are as distant as my seat on the lawn. But another show, when they opened for the Allman Brothers Band, brings back memories of another tight set, this time played, if I remember correctly, in the orchestra pit in front of the stage. I don’t know if this was to facilitate an equipment changeover, or if it was an attempt to close the gap between performers and audience. I like to think it was the latter. That show featured the first time I heard them play “Atlantic City,” which Bruce Springsteen had played in the same venue a few years before.

Levon and Rick Danko came back to SPAC as part of Ringo Starr’s first All-Starr Band. I still can’t believe I paid $8.00 (yes, eight dollars) for a seat that now usually costs ten or fifteen times that price.

Levon and Garth Hudson also played at a free show during the late ‘90s at the Empire State Plaza. I remember thinking that Levon did not sing nor look particularly well during that show, and it wasn’t long after that I heard about his bout with throat cancer.

But his set with Ramble on the Road in 2008 at Mountain Jam was a triumph. It was especially gratifying to see such a warm reception from many of the young people in the audience.

Two years later Ramble on the Road returned to Mountain Jam for Levon’s 70th Birthday Party, along with another all-star group of supporting musicians, including Donald Fagen (Steely Dan), Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, Steve Earle, Allison Moorer, Sam Bush and Warren Haynes.

Ramble on the Road – featuring Levon’s daughter Amy Helm, Larry Campbell, Jim Weider and an army of supporting musicians – appeared at last year’s moe.down at the Gelston Castle Estate in Mohawk. A remarkable set followed a particularly nasty thunderstorm, with the highlight of a semi-acoustic set featuring Bob Weir joining Levon, who had switched to mandolin.

Thanks for all the great music, Levon.

RIP: Levon Helm, 1940-2012

Ramble On The Road at moedown, 2011
Ramble On The Road at moedown, 2011
Levon Helm at 2010 Mountain Jam
Levon Helm at Mountain Jam, 2010
Levon Helm at Mountain Jam, Hunter Mountain, 2008
Levon Helm at Mountain Jam, Hunter Mountain, 2008
1 Comment
  1. Mike Johnson says

    Very nice Stan. Thanks for sharing. Thanks for turning me onto Levon Helm and his music.

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