Tag Archives: woodstock

The Gods Await to Delight in You: Playing and Enjoying Music in the Catskills

Originally published in the Woodstock Times

RBW, with Satellite Paradiso, 2016, pic by Hans Wendland

RBW, with Satellite Paradiso, 2016, pic by Hans Wendland

Hudson Valley life affords me more opportunities to play music in front of people than any other place I’ve lived, and that includes New York City. The Catskills, in fact, feel like one big stage, with accommodating spirits hovering, encouraging, constantly offering chances for musicians and music lovers to step out of everyday life and into the timelessness of song. I completely understand why Dylan, the Band, Hendrix, John Sebastian, Van Morrison, Rundgren, Bowie, and many other musicians have lived – or still live – here. And why Woodstock (in Bethel) happened in these hills, and why its scope and vibe has never really been repeated elsewhere.

In his poem, The Laughing Heart, Charles Bukowski wrote, “The gods await to delight in you.” In our rolling, mysterious hills, this notion feels quite real. Our local gods, in the rocks, the waterways, and lush mountainsides, await to delight in us, musicians and music-lovers alike. Their desire is palpable.

Uncle Rock & Noel Fletcher, Wilson Campground, Mt. Tremper, NY, 2006

Uncle Rock & Noel Fletcher, Wilson Campground, Mt. Tremper, NY, 2006


I’ve actually lost track of the venues in which I’ve performed. The list runs the gamut from the Bardavon and First Steps Preschool, to the Bearsville Theater and the Woodstock Farm Festival. Almost every church. Definitely every school in the Onteora system. Mountain Jam? Did it, more than once. Santa’s arrival on the Woodstock Green? Played that, with my band, on a flatbed truck, with Santa himself on lead guitar. Adoption ceremony in Delhi, at which foster kids officially became family members? Check. Garlic Festival? Several times, ate the garlic ice cream. Glenford Church? I turned fifty on that stage. New World Home Cooking? Yes, broadcast on WAMC. Utopia Soundstage? A lot. Levon’s Barn? God yes, with Levon on drums. Harmony Café? Yes, and walked off with a cannabis-scented, crisp fifty dollar bill, pressed into my hand by a very friendly, very high dude in a Grateful Dead hoodie.

RBW, Kleinert/James Gallery, Woodstock, NY, 2014

RBW, Kleinert/James Gallery, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Also: Kleinert/James, Byrdcliffe Theater and Barn, Colony Café, Tinker Street Café, every bookstore in the region, every library, Proctors, The Linda, Rosendale Café/Street Festival/ Theater, Clearwater (Sloop and Fest), Taste of the Catskills, Belleayre, summer and winter Hoots, Tinker St. Cinema, the Shandaken Theatrical Society, Empire State Railway Museum, Woodstock Animal Sanctuary, Woodstock Community Center, ‘Cue, BSP, Market Market, and probably your neighbor’s house. Maybe even your house.

Uncle Rock, First Steps Preschool, Bearsville, NY, 2015

Uncle Rock, First Steps Preschool, Bearsville, NY, 2015

RBW with the Catskill 45s, house party, Mt. Tremper, NY

RBW with the Catskill 45s, house party, 2014, Mt. Tremper, NY

Every venue offers something different, and affects music, music-maker, and audience. As a musician, you become accustomed to how you sound while practicing, usually at home or in some hovel. But once you play out, that sound changes; the music takes on characteristics of the room (or the outdoor space), the people, the communal vibe of the day, which is nigh impossible to predict. After some time, you learn to gauge the space, the people, and adjust. You learn to pivot.

RBW in Rocky Horror at Byrdcliffe Barn, Woodstock. Pic by Dennis Oclair

RBW in Rocky Horror at Byrdcliffe Barn, Woodstock. 2013, Pic by Dennis Oclair

Sometimes the venue is charmed, and energizes, imbues you with power. Alternatively, even in our music-friendly region, a space can work against you, with bad tech, crappy acoustics, and/or a clueless or hostile crowd that’ll make you feel like you’ve been thrown to the lions. At which point you must suck it up and play on.

In my experience, the local venues I’ve loved playing are, not surprisingly, often the venues in which I’ve also seen some unforgettable shows. Best acoustics? Easy: Levon’s Barn. Thick, rough-hewn wood, few windows, and somehow, even though you feel you’re in someone’s home (because you are in someone’s home), the Barn features top-notch sound equipment and sound operators – usually Brendan McDonough.

When I played the Kids Ramble in 2007, I stepped onto the thick rugs of the performance area and recalled how, three years before, I’d seen Levon sit in with Ollabelle at the first Midnight Ramble I attended. We’d been told Levon couldn’t sing, due to his cancer treatments. But to everyone’s astonishment, he did sing, in duets with his daughter, Amy. The energy between them was magic, a glowing thing. And like I say, it all sounded fantastic; perfect volume, all instruments discernible as individual waves, but also part of a whole, touching the audience’s insides, enlivening us, making us one.

Uncle Rock and Tracy Bonham, Fiber Flame, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Uncle Rock and Tracy Bonham, Fiber Flame, Woodstock, NY, 2014

Because most of us listen to music on substandard speakers, earbuds, or through bad systems operated by amateurs, you forget how great amplified sound can be. So, excellent live sound is often revelatory. And that’s what you get at the Barn.

And by the way, Levon was not supposed to play at that 2007 Kids Ramble gig, either. But he did. Elizabeth Mitchell and You Are My Flower, with whom I, as Uncle Rock, shared the bill, played the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On,” and they drafted me to play bass an arm’s reach from Levon, who laid down a funky beat and grinned at me like a Cheshire cat. I will take that one with me when I go.


When folks talk – and/or post – about “best concert(s) I ever saw,” I always include Richard Thompson at the Bearsville Theater, solo acoustic, Rumor & Sigh tour, 1991. (My wife and I were weekenders then.) First time I saw him, first time I heard his now classic “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” The sold out, 400-person capacity room was the perfect venue. Any bigger, and it might’ve lost some intensity; any smaller, and the crush of people would’ve distracted. His songs, jaw-dropping fingerpicking wizardry, and quiet charisma mixed with a mysterious element he conjured among the congregation, a sense of community. I’ve seen many shows in this room, full bands and solo performers, and I’ve played in various configurations – solo, band, huge band – and for me, the Bearsville Theater excels with smaller-scale acts. Again, much wood makes for good acoustics, the vaulted, church-like ceiling gives a sense of quiet grandeur, and the separate space for the bar means no glasses clinking during quieter moments.

When I finally played Bearsville Theater about fifteen years later, my first thought was, “This is where I saw that amazing Richard Thompson gig.”

RBW in Paul Green Rock Academy's Christmas Spectacular, 2014, Bearsville Theater

RBW in Paul Green Rock Academy’s Christmas Spectacular, 2014, Bearsville Theater


My favorite local gig of all – one that I played – was impromptu and just three years ago. I’d performed at Mike and Ruthy’s inaugural summer Hoot at the Ashokan Center, first on the Toshi Seeger stage, then throughout the grounds over the course of the day. It was a perfect summer day, ideal temperature, few bugs, verdant surroundings. The Hoot was well attended, with great food, reasonable prices, and much spontaneous fun for kids and adults. It was the kind of day that makes everyone a better person.

Summer Hoot, 2013, Toshi Stage, Ashokan Center

Summer Hoot, 2013, Toshi Stage, Ashokan Center

I was officially done, and Mike Merenda asked if, after Natalie Merchant’s set, I would commandeer a “song swap” at a bonfire atop the hill overlooking the Pete Seeger stage. It would be an alternative for folks who didn’t want to go dance at the Killian Pavilion, an opportunity for the many campers who’d brought instruments to play together. I said sure, thinking, “No one will come. Everyone will go dancing.” I was wrong.

RBW, Kingston, NY sidewalk, 2012, by Tania Baricklo

RBW, Kingston, NY sidewalk, 2012, by Tania Baricklo

The perfect day melted into a perfect Catskill summer evening, starlit, no sounds of heavy industry audible, dew in the air. Someone lit a huge bonfire on the hill, just as Natalie said thank you, good night. The crowd below dispersed into the deepening dark. To my surprise, a wave of people ascended the hill, and campers stepped into the firelight with guitars, mandolins, banjos, and ukuleles. The congregation swelled quickly, from twenty, to fifty or so. Maybe more. The crowd, as an organism, was initially bashful. I was wondering how to engage everyone, when out of the darkness, a woman’s voice asked, “Anyone know ‘I Love Rock N’ Roll’?”

“I do!” I said. And I played it, and everyone sang, and we were off. As the hours passed, people grew ever bolder, singing folk songs, country, rock, punk, and originals that ranged from a cappella emo laments to crusty sea chanties. As goes it with a successful song swap, a momentum asserted itself, and young and old alike settled into our temporary little firelit tribe, tapping into ancient strands of collective memory. Humankind as a species has spent much more time singing songs around fires than any other activity, and a sense of familiarity takes hold, a constant déjà vu.

Finally, around 1 A.M., I grew tired and took my leave to drive home while I still could. The circle kept singing, barely conscious of me, piling on logs, sending sparks aloft as they engaged in song after song after song. I could still hear them from the darkness of the parking lot, where I reluctantly re-engaged with modern life, i.e. my car. Just before I turned the ignition key, I could also hear, ever so faint, the laughing of the delighted gods.



A Visit With the Cloud Walker – Philippe Petit in Rhinebeck

A couple nights ago, Holly and I drove with our sixteen-year-old son, Jack, across the Hudson to Rhinebeck, NY, to see and hear the wonderful Philippe Petit at Oblong Books & Music (a great indie bookstore I recently wrote about). Philippe is the Frenchman who walked on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center forty years ago this August. I need to write that again in italics. He walked on a wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. At that time, the second tallest buildings in the world. And he didn’t just do it once. He strode back and forth 8 times, approximately 1400 feet above the pavement, 110 stories, jumping occasionally, and even laying down, as if to take a nap. Thinking about that, seeing photos, and most of all, standing in Philippe’s presence, never fails to spike my blood pressure, but in a good way. My sense of wonder re-ignites, and a whole vista of possibility opens inside me. In short, I feel like a kid. I will never, ever wrap my head around Philippe’s astonishing, unique feat, but that’s OK. It’s like what T. S. Eliot said about poetry: it communicates before it is understood. Philippe’s 1974 walk, and his entire life, is best viewed, I have decided, like a poem, a living work of art, communicating volumes of mostly inexpressible, yet invigorating energy. There is no “processing.”

Philippe on one of his 8 passes between the towers.

Philippe on one of his 8 passes between the towers.

I was 9 and growing up in Atlanta, Georgia when Philippe took to the Manhattan sky, but I heard and read about it, fascinated. I was too young to recall the Moon landings, so this, I assume, was like that for me, although sadly (or perhaps not) no film footage exists of Philippe’s walk among the clouds, except an indistinct, faraway helicopter video. When I moved from Georgia to Manhattan in 1985, and saw (and briefly worked in) the WTC, my amazement was refreshed. I went to the top floor of WTC 1, and thought about Philippe’s act. It made me queasy, especially when I realized the towers swayed in the wind.

Further keeping Philippe in my forebrain was my first roommate, Peter McCabe, who was studying acting at NYU. He was a big Philippe fan, and, to our landlords’ dismay, Pete constructed a walking wire in the long hall of our Avenue B tenement (he drilled supports into the floorboards). He practiced on it, honing his actorly grace. And, a la Philippe, Pete occasionally fastened a slack rope between two trees in Washington Square Park, and walked it.

So Philippe never really left my consciousness. And when the towers fell in my last year as a New Yorker, I thought of him, and knew his heart was breaking even more than mine.


Because Philippe is a Catskill neighbor, our family trip to Oblong was the fifth time we’ve seen him perform. I say perform because calling what he does a “lecture” or a “talk”  seems insulting. Although it was an author event for his recently published (and excellently titled) Creativity: The Perfect Crime, it was not a “reading.” It was a performance.

We almost didn’t go because Jack is in the final crunch of his sophomore year of high school and he had studying to do. (And, to be frank, I was in a tunnel-visioned bad mood.) But, as often happens in parenting, we took a calculated risk, in part because Jack knows Philippe, and really wanted to go. As parents, we want Jack to connect with extraordinary people as much as possible, to see, up close, lives lived with bravery, integrity, and joy. That sums up Philippe pretty well. I have told Jack time and again that he will go his entire life and never meet anyone like Philippe Petit. So we made the 45-minute drive, and Jack alternately napped and studied in the back seat.

My son first met Philippe via Woodstock’s Golden Notebook  (another great indie bookstore). Jack works there after school on Fridays, and helps out at author events. He assisted Philippe at a Woodstock Writers Festival event for Philippe’s 2013 book Why Knot? (Philippe is prolific) and they hit it off. Philippe even came to our tiny town of Phoenicia and gave a performance in an old church, where I rigged my decrepit amplifier for his microphone and wished with all my might I could make it sound better than it did. But Philippe didn’t complain. And he sold a ton of books.

Philippe Petit and Jack, Woodstock Writers Festival, 2013.

Philippe Petit and Jack, Woodstock Writers Festival, 2013.

At Oblong, Philippe, true to form, did not mingle with the crowd prior to his performance, as authors usually do. He was going to make an entrance. The place was packed, standing room only, almost 100 people, which is a lot for Oblong, although, as ever, I looked around and wondered why 5,000 people weren’t there, just as interested as me. Honestly, what could be cooler than this guy? What?

An assistant gave every audience member a plastic fork – no explanation – and, after a quick intro, Philippe bounded out, elfin, graceful yet powerful, like a ballet dancer, looking many years younger than 64. He sized us up with a palpable intensity, the molecules in the air shifted, and he began.

Philippe at Oblong, photo courtesy Helen Seslowsky, Oblong Books

Phiippe at Oblong, photo courtesy Helen Seslowsky, Oblong Books

His voice is musical, accented of course, his English is fluid and perfect, and he is as funny as a stand-up. The only unintentional (I think) malapropism of the night was when he explained why he sketches so much, rather than taking photos during his travels. He said, “I do not have an intelligent phone.” After saying hello to Oscar-winning local gal Melissa Leo in the front row, Philippe expressed his hatred of “books about creativity,” but his editor encouraged him to write about his creativity, so here we are. Then he invited a woman out of the audience and pretended to perform a card trick when, in fact, he removed her watch from her wrist without her – or anyone – noticing. He talked of learning magic as a kid (on a commune, it turns out) then mastering juggling, riding his unicycle everywhere, and basically teaching himself everything. The word “autodidact” never sounded so lovely. He also got kicked out of five schools.

This is all covered beautifully in the documentary Man On Wire, by the way, which you need to see if you haven’t.


Philippe at Oblong, Melissa Leo in baby blue sweater, front row, smiling. Photo courtesy Helen Seslowsky, Oblong Books

Philippe at Oblong, Melissa Leo in baby blue sweater, front row, smiling. Photo courtesy Helen Seslowsky, Oblong Books

Philippe finally mentioned the forks. He asked people to come up with alternate uses for the fork, i.e. be creative. He got some entertaining answers. Jack raised his hand, but we were way in the back, and he didn’t get called on. I asked my son what he would’ve suggested, and he said you could hold the fork tines up to your eye and get a sense of what it was like to be in prison, thereby broadening your perspective on life. I’m biased, of course, but no one else’s suggestion was nearly as good as that.

The only dip in the positive vibe was during the Q & A, when a guy asked how it felt for Philippe’s “pinnacle” to have been when he was 24. Very annoying. But, deft as ever, and unflappable, Philippe explained, in a roundabout, poetic way, that it wasn’t “the pinnacle” of his life, because he is still living that moment every day. The subtext: if you ever did anything as magnificent and monumental as that, you wouldn’t be asking that obnoxious question (interpretation mine). And, in fact, Philippe’s life has continued to be unusual, bountiful, and inspiring.

Around this time, Philippe noticed Jack, and called out to his friend, his “soul cousin.”  That, in a word, was the pinnacle of the night.

We bought books, and Philippe said hello, signed them (in honor of Jack’s style, he drew a top hat on his) and we headed into the night, each of us quite jazzed. For Jack in particular, the event was very encouraging, and he was buoyant into the next morning. What he said on the street was that Philippe made him feel less stressed about school, which is marvelous. His school experience is much, much more stressful than his mom’s or mine ever was, and we all endeavor to stay engaged and on track without overdoing it. It’s a challenge. Does he plan to get kicked out of school and take to death-defying antics like Philippe?  No. But it’s not about that. It’s about seeing a vibrant expression of life beyond the version of what a school kid – or anyone – knows and sees every day. An active encounter with an amazing person telling an offbeat life story, who is vital and engaged, gives more perspective than reading a book or passively watching something. It’s complimentary education. The values of art, and artist, and life are there before you, breathing, laughing, transporting fellow souls into the limitless imagination, as artists do.

The terrain where we experience wonder and possibility gets obscured by the daily grind, the news, the hammering home every day of our collective peril.  Philippe restores that imaginative-yet-very-real vista, where some important living must take place. This vista is crucial for all of us, but mostly for Jack, who, like his soul cousin, looks to the clouds and sees more than just clouds.



The Last Straw: Halloween Grace


Our old home, 113 St. Mark’s Place, NYC

A thug stabs a teenager to death outside the Catholic school on our block. We stay. Gunshot to the face kills a handsome drug dealer on our stoop. We stay. A junkie O.D.’s in our basement. We stay. On the 14th street A-train subway platform, during rush hour on a Friday, a man who will never be caught shoots and kills our wacky, beloved upstairs neighbor. We stay.  

Shortly after we become parents, we watch the Trade Towers fall. For many Manhattan families, this horror is the last straw leading them to seek safer homes. Perhaps this should be the case for us. Especially considering 2001 is already the worst year of our married life. Pre-9/11, both my in-laws have passed away within weeks of each other, my wife has parted ways with her longtime employer, and, due to a lost eviction case with our landlord, we must find a new home. 9/11 is actually the cherry on top.

You’d think we’d get the hint, but no. We perversely cling to New Yorker-hood, tighter than ever. We’re still looking at apartments, living off hope, dwindling savings, and cash from the one bartending shift I kept when I became a stay-at-home dad.

For weeks, black plumes rise from the financial district, but we cleave ever tighter to the crucible of punk rock and possibility where, over the course of almost two decades, both my wife and I have become our current selves. We’ve suffered, but also, through skill, luck, and stubbornness, each of us has beat mythical odds, and experienced some dreams actually coming true; at different times, we’ve both made good money, or I should say, acquired remuneration doing what we love. We’re like compulsive gamblers refusing to leave the crumbling, squalid casino, because once in awhile, we’ve hit the jackpot. If that doesn’t root you to a place, what will?

Speaking of jackpot: one realized dream we share is our Manhattan parenthood. I love toting our son in a backpack in the russet-tinged light of the East Village. I love the immigrant women baffled by my stay-at-home dadhood: “Where’s the baby’s mama?!?” the Ukrainian woman yells from her stoop. (And/or the Indian woman, or the Ecuadorian woman. They cannot wrap their heads around a man doing what I’m doing.) I love foreseeing our boy coming of age in multicultural neighborhoods, where Farsi, Arabic, and Urdu pepper the air, where Richard Hell, Lou Reed, Allen Ginsberg, and Phillip Glass still walk the earth. This will be our son’s stomping ground.

We’ll find some way to explain to him the violence that haunts the sidewalks where he learns to walk. We vow he will experience the wonders of Manhattan, his bedazzlement overshadowing the horrors. We picture him becoming a city teen, meeting pals at CBGB, hanging out with his girlfriend on the tar beach of our roof. We are not easily dissuaded from these dreams. We are, in fact, professional dreamers.

The shock of 9/11 morphs into deep sadness; we decide to take a break from the collective grief of our town, and leave the acrid odor still wafting up from Ground Zero. We will spend Halloween in a secluded cabin near Woodstock. Our three-year-old will experience his first trick-or-treating in the famed Woodstock Halloween Parade, not the East Village storefronts and stoops.

I’ve not thought about pagan Halloween history in a while, but on the 31st, when we drive to Woodstock and see the crowds, I remember delicious details of this odd fete, details I learned at Enchantments, the occult store near our apartment, where I’d spent a little time buying essential oils, getting my cards read, and talking to the witches.

The urban witches at Enchantments told me the reason people began dressing up at harvest time was to disguise themselves from malevolent forces that run amuck in mid-Autumn, when omnipresent death of crops weakens the barriers between the world of the living and the spirit realm. Trick-or-treating would come later, but in the beginning, we donned costumes so these ill-meaning entities would mistake us for their own kind, and move on. Move on, at last. Christianity tried to squelch these powerful rites, and failed.

Anne Beattie said, “People forget years but remember moments.” I remember this: Woodstock Halloween Parade, 2001, air scented with apples and fresh donuts; my son, in a homemade ghost outfit, walks fearlessly among strangers guised as vampires, werewolves, zombies, all manner of pretend evil; in my mind, they are joyously keeping the real evil of the world at bay. This clear moment is, quite unexpectedly, the last straw: I see the promise of a new life, protected from wickedness by mischievous, benevolent spirits of the wood. An illusion, yes, but a powerful one. It bears me up.

Soon after, we leave our beloved, broken New York for good, and head for the Catskills, feeling blessed for the first time in a long while. The final straw is steadfast, pagan, Halloween grace.

Children Trick-or-treating

Conspiracies, Blasphemies, Gouda, and Love Stories

I’ve been busy writing for both Rock Paper Photo and Chronogram. Please find a round-up below.

For RPP, I’ve weighed in on CDs by Fiona Apple, Joe Jackson, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young; I also penned a post about both  Tenacious D’s Rize of the Fenix and the amazing Jack Black, whose performance in this year’s Bernie is a stunner. Rent it.

For Chronogram, I wrote about books by local authors Guy Lawson and John Long and a I reviewed a new CD from my muso friends Mike + Ruthy, whose The NYC EP makes me so proud to know them.


I first saw Mike + Ruthy at the Photosensualis Gallery in Woodstock in, I think, ’06, and they wowed me: vocal harmonies, chops, and a je ne sais pas vibe evoking Dylan and Baez, Parsons and Harris, etc… for my money they’re on a par with all the greats. Seriously.

When their son Willy became an Uncle Rock fan, we crossed paths more often. Last winter Ruthy and I taught a music class in Woodstock and she learnt me “I Been Workin’ On The Railroad,” which is more complicated than you’d think.

Ruthy Ungar and me with cookies made by students at our music class. Pic by Nicole Jurain.

Despite its sophistication, “I Been Workin’ On The Railroad” is instantly memorable to any kid, even if they’ve never heard it before, sort of like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Witnessing a child as young as three or four apprehend a song so quickly, as if it’s in their DNA, is eerie and cool.

I’m happy to spread the word about Mike + Ruthy’s new release. Click on the image below for my review (more an appreciation, really) of their The NYC EP. Listen and/or buy HERE.

Mike + Ruthy’s The NYC EP.

For my Rock Paper Photo blog posts, click on the pix below.

Fiona Apple by Anna Webber

Joe Jackson by Mark Hanauer

Dylan by Dezo Hofmann

Neil Young by Jay Blakesburg

Neil Young by Jay Blakesburg

Jack Black by Stephen Stickler


Octopus is Guy Lawson‘s deeply researched, true account of Madoff-esque Wall Street hedge fund manager Sam Israel, who loses all his investors’ millions and goes on an international adventure to try to get it back, all the while ingesting copious drugs, falling into the clutches of world-class con men, and suffering from delusions. As with all my Chronogram work, there’s a local angle, and it turns out I’ve met acclaimed author Guy Lawson, whose twin daughters were once, you guessed it, Uncle Rock fans (now they’ve aged out). Plus, Guy’s wife Maya Kaimal is a renowned cookbook author and maker of the most amazing sauces, which we purchase at the local supermarket and consume in vast quantities here at home. My editor knew none of this when she sent me the book. Click on the pic for the review.

Guy Lawson’s Octopus

I also reviewed John Long’s Darwin’s Devices, which turns out to be a pretty interesting account of bio-robots, or evolvobots, i.e. robots designed to evolve in order to teach us about prehistoric creatures and their march toward increasing sophistication. Much info about artificial intelligence, and military use of same. Sadly, no replicants just yet. But someday, definitely. Click on the pic!

Hope you  enjoy all and sundry!

Levon Helm, Our Shining Pride

“You’re my pride, Loretty. My shinin’ pride.”

That was my introduction to Levon Helm. Perfectly cast as Ted Webb, father of Loretta Lynn, in the superlative 1980 biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter. (Put it in your queue. Just do it.) In the above-quoted scene, Levon, in his acting debut, calls up a complicated mix of love, dismay, and resignation to convey a father’s singular pain at letting a fiery 13-year-old (!!) marry a 22-year-old force-of-nature wingnut he does not care for. With only a few lines to get the job done, Levon lets us inside Papa Webb’s thorny knowledge that keeping his eldest daughter home (with seven other kids) will kill her spirit, which he respects with a depth even Loretta won’t understand for years. The affection for this spirit is what lets her go, and it is what gave the world Loretta Lynn. It’s a love scene that has nothing to do with romance, and Levon nails it.

I was 15 years old when I saw Coal Miner’s Daughter, and ignorant of any kind of love other than the hormone-y, adolescent variety. Fumbling towards musicianship, I was familiar with The Band not as personalities, but simply the men behind the catchy but lyrically trippy “The Weight,”in frequent rotation on WQXI in Atlanta. Someone told me Ted Webb was Levon Helm, The Band’s drummer. You know – the cool hillbilly guy in a constant alpha-male duel/duet with Robbie  Robertson in The Last Waltz. The one who sings his ass off while at the same time laying down the country funk.

Oh yeah. That guy. Click.

I was just learning. Of course I had no idea I’d one day shake this guy’s hand in his home as he thanked me for working at a nearby preschool, nor could I have imagined  I’d make music with him, as part of Elizabeth Mitchell’s impromptu band during an afternoon Kids’ Ramble. The Kids’ Ramble was one of the many occasions Levon and his people raised funds for local public school district Onteora’s music program. Needless to say, I frequently conjure the memory – one of my top five musical recollections – of his joyful jack-o-lantern grin on me as I threaded my bass to his kick drum on the Lou Reed song “What Goes On,” while Liz, her daughter Storey, and husband/co-conspirator Daniel Littleton rocked, and families danced around us.

We have lost Levon, and the community grieves en masse. As I write, memorials are being planned in Woodstock. Of course, memories are flowing. My son is one year younger than I was when I sat in a dark theater and took in Levon’s instructive, moving performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter. But while I give props to that resonant bit of acting (even more potent now, as I am increasingly Papa Webb, less Loretty) the regard I feel for Levon’s Ted Webb is nothing compared to my awe for Levon the musician, and my respect for Levon the community man, a guy who kept coming back from adversity, swinging those tough, gnarly arms, giving and giving, and smiling ever more broad as time nipped at his heels like the goddamn dog that it is. (Seriously – do a Google search; the older Levon Helm gets, the more he smiles.)

Which brings me to: Levon is one of the few members of the rock and roll firmamanet who made me unafraid to grow old, because he did it with such style, dignity, fun, fierceness, and even sexiness. He left behind a unique template that I will struggle to follow.

While I appreciated Levon and The Band as I moved through adulthood, their music finally sunk into my marrow not long after my family and I moved into a 1910 Victorian a few towns over from Big Pink. This was 2002. By then I’d been a musician most of my life, and I’d sat around plenty of campfires and/or in the light of the Waffle House jukebox, slaughtering “The Weight,” but after getting that mortgage, things got serious with me and The Band. Sometimes music calls to you, and so it was with the Across The Great Divide box set, which asserted itself as I was negotiating some very grown-up problems; I needed adult blues poetry and ramshackle funk to help me settle into homeownership, parenthood, and joy-tinged-with-resignation, i.e. – the next chapter of my life. Levon and Co. fit the bill perfectly.

It took about two years for Levon and me to meet. My family and I gradually settled into our new country life, enrolling our son Jack in Phoenicia Elementary (part of the afore-mentioned Onteora), shopping locally, finding our folks. It seemed everyone had something up-close-and-personal to say about Levon; about the fire that had consumed his house, about his band, his continued rocking at local bars, his daughter Amy’s new group Ollabelle, his autobiography, his cancer and the subsequent loss of his voice, and finally, come 2004, his Midnight Rambles, a nighttime concert series in the barn/studio adjacent to his (rebuilt) home, begun as a means to pay off his medical bills.

By then, I was working as a teacher’s assistant at School Of The New Moon in Mt. Tremper (apparently, bartending and playing in bands is great prep for wrangling tots) and word on the two-lane-blacktop was that firemen and teachers got in free to the Rambles. By the time the scuttlebutt filtered down to me, it was around Thanksgiving, 2004, and the ticket price, if memory serves, was $100. It was potluck, too, with everything from epicurean delights to M & M’s, depending on who showed up. (The food was always good and plentiful, it turned out.) If my preschool teacher’s assistant status didn’t cover it, I was going to fork over the dough anyway and eat my weight in M & M’s. (Holly did pay. And it was the best C-note she ever spent.)

We’d heard the Rambles were shaping up to be must-see events, with local luminaries like Donald Fagen, Garth Hudson and John Sebastian frequently dropping in, and music extending into the wee hours. Shenanigans were afoot, old school man-mischief, people walking away grinning like Cheshire cats. I’d been assured Levon was in excellent form, cancer can kiss his hillbilly ass, and although he was not singing due to radiation treatments, elder bluesman Little Sammy Davis was handling the vocal duties admirably. When word got out that Howlin’ Wolf’s guitaristHubert Sumlin and Ollabelle were booked, Holly and I were strenuously advised to get a babysitter for Jack and get our butts over there.

When I said, “I’m a teacher,” the door guy not only let me in gratis, he slapped me on the back, and welcomed my wife and me to a sold-out Ramble. Excellent beginning. Guys were gathered around burn barrels, helping people park. Inside, it was packed, but just enough to be warm and comfy. Downstairs was schmooze and merchandise, with Levon’s many framed photos and posters on the walls, and comestibles in what once had been a garage. Very homey. In those days, upstairs seating in the high ceilinged barn/studio was a bit more laissez-faire, with folks plopping down cross-legged in front of worn Persian rugs on the small stage. I think about 150/200 folks could get in. Balconies had been built around the edges of the performance/recording area. The hum of equipment and the smell of warm amplifier tubes permeated the air alongside the familiar stank of sweaty, excited people.

Ollabelle‘s T-Bone Burnett-produced eponymous CD was freshly out, and the band had a bit of the golden buzz. All five members came across as pure naturals in the stage lights, laying down a deep-dish blend of folk, soul, and rock and roll, immediately winning everyone over. It was my first time seeing Amy, and I was struck by how her moves sometimes resembled her dad’s when she played mandolin. 

Speaking of her dad, I spotted him during Ollabelle’s set, walking around, shaking hands, embracing audience members, nodding in approval at the music, grinning wide. But he was so skinny, so… slight. I’d not seen him since checking out The Last Waltz at a midnight movie decades ago, so I was expecting him to be older, but… I was worried. I wondered if he’d actually be getting behind the kit.

Then he did. And that was magic. Like Disney-style magic. As soon as he picked up the sticks, a glow emanated from him, expanding his presence beyond his body, across the stage and into the room. It was breathtaking. In all my years as a musician and a fan of bands, I’d never seen anything like it. All his frailty was gone, and first the band, then the entire room, filled with energy.

All of Ollabelle responded, but Amy in particular connected to her dad, and he to her, in a rare, wordless stage communication. Their eyes met and before I knew it, someone put a microphone in front of Levon’s face and he opened his mouth and sang.

Pandemonium. No one saw that coming.  The surprise and subsequent communal joy resounded off the walls. As intense as the atmosphere already was, it ratcheted up a couple notches. Levon and Amy duetted on a few tunes, both of them laughing and smiling like: welcome to the miracle. I recall thinking, I heard his singing days were over. But they were not. Radiation can kiss his hillbilly ass.

When Ollabelle finished, Holly insisted on meeting Levon. I was shy, but luckily, she dragged me over to him, as is her wont. He was sweaty, but still in his music-enhanced state, vibrant, moving from person-to-person, touching people like a the wise rock and roll elder he was. I was dazzled and mush-mouthed, but as I shook his hand, I thanked him for his “teachers get in free” policy. To my amazement, he kind of bowed to me, Japanese-style, and, hand to his chest, thanked me for working with kids. He said he knew teachers did not get enough respect and anything he could do to remedy that, well, he was gonna do it. It was one of the only times we spoke, but those hoarse, heartfelt words echo around in me like a benediction from a holy man. Because that’s what they were.

Over the next few years I would come to know a few of Levon’s band and crew, his sentinels, his protectors, the folks who spun a circle of love around the man and helped him to wrench a surprising fourth act out of his life, a span of extra credit time in which Grammys glowed and the once-forsaken road beckoned. I am proud to have been a small part of this unexpected reprieve, when Levon used his windfall of time to bring music and much-needed attention (money) to those in need, those who suffered, those undervalued and taken for granted. He used his age and status to lift folks up in ways both material and spiritual, and it is one of the joys of my life that I can say I was there and privileged to be a part of it with the Kids’ Rambles.

Levon’s largesse is catchy, too. Just last year, his core band – Larry Campbell, Teresa Williams, Amy, and Byron Isaacs – played a benefit to help raise funds for my small-town library, which had suffered a devastating fire. Thanks in part to them, rebuilding will soon commence.

The last few times I attended Rambles, Levon didn’t do the rounds in the audiences. I reckoned he was pacing himself, saving it up for the stage, which consistently lit up with his presence as it had that first time. But the audiences had swelled and folks could be smothering, so I reasoned he needed his space prior to showtime. Then I saw him perform at the Apollo with Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Richard Thompson, Larry Campbell, and Allen Toussaint as part of Elvis’s Spectacle, and he did not sing (Ray LaMonagne did). I put that down to his touring schedule. Or a virus. Or the crazy way he sat and played drums, wrenching his body. Anything but the  inevitable, which I’d started to believe he’d somehow avoided, like a musician in a folktale who has outfoxed the devil.

Why would I think that? Because I saw Levon do magic. And the kind of magic he performed still lingers among us, and will fill the air as we celebrate him this weekend and beyond, as his music plays on down the decades. I will be there for any celebrations this weekend, and I am certain wherever he is laid to rest will attract pilgrims far into the future. As for me, I will visit him often in my memories, as I grow old and try ever harder to be like him.

Rest In Peace, Levon. And thank you.

RBW, Paris 4-25-12

P.S. photo credits to follow…