June 16, 2007. Tigger and I were at our first Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm’s barn. Front row. My foot was right alongside Levon’s cymbal stand.
I wasn’t there in any official wordscribe capacity; I wasn’t writing for anyone at the time. We were just there to be.
It was the portion of the evening when Levon came out from behind the drum kit and took a stool center stage, mandolin in hand. I remember how the hair stood up on my arms when he let fly on the opening riff to “Atlantic City”. (Springsteen wrote it, but Levon owned it.)
Levon traded off lead vocals with his daughter Amy and Teresa Williams for the next several tunes, then got up from the stool and turned the stage over to them. He slipped into the shadows.
Amy and Teresa were joined by Vicki Bell (backing vocalist for opener Alexis P. Suter) and the rest of the band stepped away, leaving just Larry Campbell and his fiddle. With a long, slow draw of the bow, Campbell laid down a droning bed of heartache; the three women began to sing.
The song? I wish I could tell you now, but I can’t; my memory of the tune itself is overshadowed by the vision I’m about to share with you.
As the voices slowly danced with the fiddle, Levon was standing off to the right of the stage, listening and taking in the music – just as we were.
For the first few moments of the song, his eyes were on his daughter and her friends; then his grin – they never made a bigger one than Levon Helm’s – began to slowly fade. Levon dipped his head and took in a deep breath; his head tilted back; his eyes were now shut.
Levon still had his mandolin; he’d been holding it by the neck, but now he drew it tight to his chest, pressing it close with both hands.
Like a baby.
Slowly, Levon began rocking his upper body in time to the music. When Amy reached for a particularly high passage, he squared his shoulders and leaned into it slightly himself – still silent; eyes still closed. And when the words tumbled down into bottomless sorrow, he hung his head and hugged that little mandolin all the tighter.
Levon wasn’t doing that for anyone’s benefit; I don’t believe he realized we could see him … he was simply gone, gone, gone with the music. I realized how tight I was holding my wife’s hand only when I had to let go to wipe my eyes.
When the song drew to a close, we watched Levon slowly unfold. His grinned returned and he loosened his grip on the mandolin to join the rest of us in applause.
Levon stepped back into the stage lights smiling, leaning in to give Amy a hug before settling back down on the stool. He nodded to the rest of the band, now in place as well, and then began chugging out the Chuck-Berry-meets-Bill-Monroe intro to “Rag Mama Rag”.
And off they went.