Larry Campbell and the Midnight Ramble Band Open for Hot Tuna at The Egg Dec 1; Midnight Ramble Band Honors Levon Helm

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Calling stringed-things player, producer and bandleader Larry Campbell the Zelig of American roots music doesn’t go far enough.

The resume of this Woodstock and New York City resident and COVID survivor sparkles with star-time records and gigs, big-time notches on his guitars, mandolins and other instruments.

Campbell has played here most often with singer-wife Teresa Williams, also with Rosanne Cash, Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble Band (with and post-Levon) and too many others to count including a fill in gig with Little Feat for then-ailing Paul Barrere at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in 2019.

On December 1, he leads the Midnight Ramble Band at The Egg, opening for Hot Tuna; then he and singer-wife-bandmate Teresa Williams guest with David Bromberg’s Big Band on December 4, also at The Egg. After those Albany shows, he and Williams are booked through June, including an all-star revue at the Capitol Theater December 17.

When I asked Cambell who he hadn’t played with, he laughed over the phone from home in Woodstock last week. “How about the Beatles?”

But he came close a few times.

When producer Giles Martin (son of Beatles producer George) asked him to play acoustic guitar with Paul McCartney, “I couldn’t do it because I had to get on a plane and go out with Bob.”

Bob Dylan, that is; Campbell did get to play with George Harrison backstage at a Dylan show.

For Campbell, music-making started with the Beatles, and a schoolyard baseball hero named Ivan.

Seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show “was the ‘Big Bang,’” said Campbell. “I was nine when that happened and I had it in my head that this was what I would end up doing.”

When Campbell’s baseball hero Ivan played Beatles songs on a 12-string guitar at the schoolyard, Campbell knew “This was It!” – and mapped his life. “Somebody that I knew, that I looked up to, can do this; so that’s what I’m going to do.” He said, “I went home – that day – and got my father’s beat-up old Silvertone acoustic guitar and that was the first step on the yellow brick road to where I am right now.”

Next steps: guitar books, tips from a folksinger at his day camp and records. “I had a record player that could slow records down from 33 (rpm) to 16,” said Campbell. “I’d spend hours trying to pick off every note I could, off stuff that moved me.”

Idolizing Greenwich Village folk and blues artists Happy and Artie Traum, John Herald, Bill Keith, Jim Rooney, John Sebastian, Eric Anderson, Cindy Cashdollar, Rose Salley, Pat Alger and Paul Butterfield, Campbell joined them in Happy’s Woodstock living room after Herald first took him there in 1978. Campbell was 23. As the Woodstock Mountain Revue, “The music we were playing in his living room, we were bringing it onstage and on record,” he said.

Next step: Broadway pit bands as structured as the Woodstock folkies were elastic. “You played the notes on the paper every single night, no diversions,” Campbell stressed, except for 16 bars in “Will Rogers Follies” where he could improvise. He valued the experience as discipline, but said, “It was great, but not something I could do for any longer than I did it.”

Next: Bob Dylan. “Your job in that band is to back him up and make him look good, which was fine.” Dylan’s shows often seemed unpredictable to fans as familiar songs turned inside out and upside down. Campbell said they’d rehearse before every tour and at soundcheck. “But it could change, depending on Bob’s mood and where he wanted to go,” said Campbell. “So you had to be really alert – but I didn’t find that a problem.”

However, Dylan’s Never-Ending Tour began to frustrate Campbell’s ambition. He said, “It was great, but after those years (1997-2004), I realized I had more stuff I wanted to do, more itches I needed to scratch as a musician” – notably songwriting and producing.

“I was getting these offers as a producer and I would try to schedule them and then Bob would schedule a tour when I thought I would be in the studio.” Campbell said, “I realized I wasn’t getting any younger and if I was going to pursue these ambitions, I had to just jump off that ship and swim.”

Campbell acknowledged, “It wasn’t an easy decision, I can tell you that.” Playing with Dylan was “a good place to be… a BIG ship.”

But leaving led to great things, next steps on his yellow brick road.

“As soon as I left Bob’s band, I got a call from Levon (Helm), and the next thing I know, Teresa and I are up at his place making music with him.”

Midnight Ramble Band

Campbell had met The Band’s drummer and singer at New York’s Lone Star Cafe, then produced a Dixie Hummingbirds album (“Diamond Jubilation” 2003) with Helm at the drums. “We just really jelled,” said Campbell.

Helm was just recovering his singing voice after throat cancer treatment; daughter Amy helped him sing songs he’d grown up singing in Arkansas. “Levon and Amy asked me to come up and produce some recordings for no other reason than to get the stuff on tape,” Campbell said. “Teresa and I, we would just sit around and sing songs and record them, and that’s what ended up as the first ‘Dirt Farmer’ record.”

Campbell soon took over as Helm’s musical director from guitarist Jimmy Vivino, busy running Conan O’Brien’s band.

“Teresa calls it a sandbox for musicians,” said Campbell of the Midnight Ramble Band. “We just go in there and make a mess and throw things around and try everything. We look forward to every time we play together, knowing there’s going to be something new and creative going on.”

Campbell also produced Helm’s “Electric Dirt” album (2009) and “Ramble at the Ryman” (2011) among many other projects including two Hot Tuna albums, a (Hot Tuna guitarist) Jorma Kaukonen solo album, two David Bromberg albums and three albums and a documentary film with Teresa Williams.

“We were getting ready to do one more (Levon Helm album),” said Campbell, “when things took a turn for the worst and we lost him.”

We almost lost Campbell, too, to COVID.

“I got it early, in March of 2020 when it was brand new,” said Campbell. “It was the most miserable thing I ever went through,” he said, lamenting both the sickness and its isolation. “I was at the house here in Woodstock and (Teresa) was at our apartment in Manhattan. “I had to stay up here by myself for seven weeks before I got it all clear.” As residual effects wane, he’s grateful and realistic. “At any point, it could have taken me out.”

After Levon Helm passed in 2012, Campbell said, “We gave no thought to giving up on (Helm’s Midnight Ramble barn concerts and tours), but we gave plenty of thought to how to continue it.” The band reunites for a few shows every year at Levon’s barn and on tour, but all the members are busy with other projects, too. “It’s rare that we all have the opportunity to be in the same place at the same time,” said Campbell who lives just 10 minutes from Levon’s barn.

“When we do get together, it’s just like being back with family and that whole vibe that Levon inspired to do this thing hasn’t lost an ounce of its presence,” said Campbell added. “He’s there, all the time, when we do this thing; in spirit, you know – you can always feel it.”

As much as Levon’s spirit, the songs he played with The Band and on later projects still power the Midnight Ramble Band. Unlike their own three-hour headlining shows, the opening set with Hot Tuna at The Egg on December 1 will be “pretty concise,” as Campbell said; “mostly stuff we played with Levon at the barn and stuff from The Band catalog and the records we did with Levon.”

After the show with Hot Tuna and a December 4 show at The Egg when Campbell and Teresa will guest with David Bromberg’s big band, they will stay busy.

Campbell is producing an album for Marley’s Ghost with engineer Justin Guip, who plays drums with Hot Tuna; and he’s musical director for Capitol Sessions at the Capitol Theater in Port Chester.

“It’s a house band with guests,” said Campbell, “doing samples of the music that was made at the theatre during its heyday through the 70s; stuff by the (Grateful) Dead, of course; Mountain, Traffic, Joe Cocker, Leon Russell – all kinds of people that played in that place.” Campbell said, “Jackson Browne is doing it with us and Jorma is doing it with us and Teresa and I and Amy Helm and the War and Treaty.”

After a Christmas break in Tennessee with Teresa and family, they play in Jamaica with Little Feat, then Williams returns to her alma mater in Knoxville for a Patsy Cline revue she performed years ago while Campbell produces several other records. Then they’ll tour the midwest through June.

Busy as this may sound, Campbell loves playing with Williams. “Doing this thing I do now with Teresa, which we developed and honed in the environment with Levon, this is the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done in my musical life,” he said.

Campbell said, “I’m playing music that we create, with the person I want to be with most in the world. This thing is what we decided, what we want it to be, and that’s a great place to be as a musician.”

The Midnight Ramble Band is Larry Campbell, vocals, guitar, mandolin and fiddle; Teresa Williams, vocals and guitar; Amy Helm, vocals, mandolin and percussion; Adam Minkoff, vocals and bass; Tony Leone, vocals and drums; Brian Mitchell, vocals, keyboards and percussion; Jim Weider, vocals and guitar; Jay Collins, tenor sax; Erik Lawrence, alto sax; and Steven Bernstein, trumpet.

Headliners Hot Tuna are Jorma Kaukonen, guitar and vocals; Jack Casady, bass; and Justin Guip, drums.

Wednesday, December 1 at The Egg. 7 p.m. $59.50, $49.50. $44.50. 518-473-1845 www.theegg.org

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