The Midnight Ramble
by Adam Betley
"Nice to meet you Adam! Thank you for driving all the way from Chicago and for writing about your experience. Hope to see you again sometime soon!" --Garth Hudson
I was so fortunate to attend this incredible Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm Studios, Woodstock, New York. The evening began with manager Barbara O'Brien announcing that we were in for a very special, historic night of music. Everyone drew up a chair to Levon's Catskill bluestone fireplace and sat down. The cameras were there to film the show and the audience cheered with excitement. Billed as "A Musical Nod To Richard & Ricky", this concert promised to be a celebration of the two fallen Band singers Richard Manuel and Rick Danko. I don't think anyone knew how the music would exceed our expectations.
Standing outside on the porch was the legendary musician himself, Garth Hudson. He entered the studio as host Jimmy Vivino introduced him to us all. The audience gave Mr. Hudson a standing ovation, while the musicians smiled joyfully as he joined them on stage. He sat down at the Hammond B3 organ. The gospel tinged opening of We Can Talk began the set. Vivino handled piano/vocals, with Byron Isaacs on electric bass/vocals and Tony Leone on drums/vocals. Garth's organ work swirled around the music in typically outstanding form. It was clear something special was happening that night. A tender reading of When You Awake followed. Vivino led the group with natural versatility. Garth's folk accordion blended softly throughout the music. He closed his eyes as these timeless songs breathed once again. The peaceful sound of Whispering Pines unfolded quietly. The group balanced each other with a sympathetic touch. Garth's cascading organ fills just poured from the music. It was a hauntingly beautiful performance. The gentle breeze of Rockin' Chair drifted inwards. The group sang reverent harmony vocals. Garth's accordion flourishes were carefully woven into the music. This concert became an unbelievable showcase of deep tracks from The Band. Everything segued loosely into Jawbone. The group played with a tough rock feel. Garth's organ lines whipped violently around the music. His musicianship was truly mind blowing. Sleeping was the most rewarding gem of the set. The song's deep rock groove suited the group perfectly. Garth played beautifully as his organ work showered throughout the music. His playing washed together into a musical kaleidoscope. The rhythm and blues of Just Another Whistle Stop charged forward. The group barreled steadily along the tracks. Garth's organ fills unraveled wildly into the music. There was such a powerful sound coming from the stage. The opening piano of Stage Fright continued onwards. The group fell into place wonderfully. Garth's organ lines spiraled endlessly around the music. It was a thrill watching him discover new dynamics within these classic arrangements. The ominous fog of The Rumor slowly rolled in. The group carried themselves with a confident stride. Garth's dark washes of organ sounds illustrated the lyrics. He painted vibrant textures as they came to him. The Moon Struck One eased into the air. The group handled things with a dark jazz sensibility. Garth's atmospheric organ work soared lightly throughout the music. It brought images of the sky illuminating the peaceful Woodstock mountains. Garth sat down at the grand piano for the exquisite solo piece Every Time I See The Moon. It was the companion of a song from his Live At The Wolf album. This musical genius was in superb form as he explored the pure art of improvisation. The group watched in respectful awe as he played into the night.
The set came to an end with Garth Hudson walking towards our seats. I smiled and offered my hand out to meet him. "Garth, it's such an honor. You're such an incredible musician. Thank you!" His black fedora was tilted down, his leather Burrito Deluxe jacket and thick white beard underneath as he smiled back. He spoke thoughtfully as he shook my hand. "Thank you. That's very nice to hear." He walked away slowly as the audience gave him another standing ovation. It was one of the happiest moments in my life. Garth sat by and enjoyed the Levon Helm Band's excellent performance. Vivino invited him back on stage for the last song of the night. "We're going to unleash Garth once again." The audience gave Mr. Hudson yet another standing ovation as he returned to the Hammond organ. He began playing the monumental introduction of The Genetic Method. We had a perfect view of his hands during this signature classical improvisation. Everyone was just speechless as he rocked the instrument with such authority: using volume pedals, playing bottom and top keyboards, adjusting tone drawbars, and rapidly spinning the Leslie speaker. He lowered his head while his hands took control of the music. Other times he swung back with his eyes closed, full of emotion as he played. He approached the sound of his Lowrey organ from the original 1968 studio recording. As his masterful playing winded through the speakers, he slid across the keyboards and churned out the main riff of Chest Fever. It was a truly historic moment as Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Jim Weider, Randy Ciarlante and the Howard Johnson horn section passionately delivered the classic rock song. The musicians gathered together were the surviving members of The Band's final incarnation. It was such an exciting night at Levon Helm Studios.
The evening was coming to an end. Garth smiled with Levon as they gave each other a warm, friendly hug. Everyone in the barn gave them a jubilant standing ovation. When I told Garth how incredible he was a second time, he laughed, thought briefly and leaned closer. "Hey... just give me another year!" he joked. Levon was also leaving the stage and greeting fans along the way. I held out my hand and hoped to speak with him as well. "Levon, it's such an honor. You're so incredible. Thank you so much!" He shook my hand, looked me in the eyes and smiled genuinely. "Thank you, brother." I'd like to say thank you once again to Garth Hudson, Levon Helm, Jimmy Vivino & Band, The Levon Helm Band and everyone at Levon Helm Studios. I encourage all fans to buy copies of Garth's A Canadian Celebration Of The Band album. This was an incredible experience that I will never forget! Thank you so much.