RAMBLE ON, LEVON


We were heading out to Casinorama, at Rama, Ontario when the news about Levon arrived.

They tell me this is "Gord Country" - as in "Lightfoot" - but I suppose it might once have been "Hawks County".

It was very strange to see our friend Larry Campbell's name on the BBC news, as the spokesman for the family but I imagine right now he is a strong right arm just as he has been producer and musical cohort during Levon’s most recent recording and performing adventures.

Those thoughts that are like prayers go out at a time like this. Some are of praise, while others can only wish for strength in those who remain, especially, Levon's wife, Sandy, his daughter, Amy, their family and closest friends.  

Given the health Levon had suffered a long time and how hard he lived at times and yet come through, it is difficult to accept that he didn't make it this time.

I know I’m not alone in being thankful for all he gave us while he was here and know that it will endure while people still have humour and heart.  

The are few more stirring sounds in all recorded music than the drags and press rolls and that announce in the last chorus of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. No other drummer ever sang with such sadness and longing. Few singers of any kind could manage it.

Very little outside of the recordings of James Brown is as funky as the opening bars of “Up On Cripple Creek”, nothing short of Mae West and Groucho Marx as lusty and mischievous as Levon’s vocals on “Don’t Ya Tell Henry”, “Strawberry Wine” and “Ophelia”.

He had it, he told, he sang and he played it in an unrepeatable, unbeatable fashion. Asked to describe the style of his playing, I once said his time- defying fills sounded like a tap-dancer jumping out of the corner of a rapidly flooding room. I can’t top that this evening.  

I feel very fortunate to have shared a stage with him for even a few occasions, finding him to be the marvelous character that I always wondered about after hearing him sing and play, spending those hours staring at those impenetrable pictures on "The Band" album cover.

We first met at the Lone Star Café in New York City, some foggy time in the 80s. He and Rick Danko were performing, I’m not sure if they were billed under their own names or that of “The Band” but the music was as vivid as I could have wished.

Now, the previous time I’d seen them perform was from the field of a crowded Wembley Stadium in the summer of ’74, in brilliant sunshine that seemed at odds with their songs.

I suppose the tide was out a little further by the time they played the Lone Star but I was so overcome at meeting Levon and Rick that I’m not sure if I talked like a fool or talked at all, rather just found them open and welcoming.

Our paths next crossed in Boston when the Attractions and I pitched up in the same hotel as the Ringo Starr and His All-Stars Band. Levon and Rick were part of the troupe and living the life of riley, as they say and we were more than happy to join them for a minute or two.

Although these encounters were thrilling and great tales to be told, it was only in recent years that I actually had the chance to play music with Levon.

The fame of “The Midnight Ramble”, shows held in the barn attached to his house in Woodstock, attracted both guest artists and a loyal and gathering audience that saw the show transplanted to the Beacon Theatre, the Ryman Auditorium and many other venues as Levon’s health rallied and vocal strength returned, also allowing him to record the great albums, “Dirt Farmer” and “Electric Dirt”.

It was my great fortune to be invited to make a “Ramble” guest appearance on the same evening as Allen Toussaint.

Now A.T. and Levon had not been in each other’s company since the preparations for The Band’s “Rock Of Ages” live album in 1971 for which Allen had traveled up from New Orleans with a suitcase of horn charts, which he promptly left in a taxi and then had to re-write on location.

They picked up as if they had been talking just a week earlier and the welcome I received was equally generous.

Being a fan of Levon’s daughter Amy, from her work with Ollabelle, I was delighted to hear preparations to open the evening with an acoustic set of stringband numbers. I asked if I could sit in.

“On which number”, father and daughter asked.

“All of them”, I replied and then read their hands for the changes for everything from a Stanley Brothers number to Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”

Meanwhile, Allen Toussaint was sitting quietly in a chair in the den that served as a dressing room, while musicians tuned and prepared around him. He was sketching out impromptu horn parts for the then unreleased song, “The River In Reverse”, which we proceeded to perform with Levon laying down the drums after hearing the song once backstage.

Once he was behind the kit, things really moved up a gear. Levon sang “Don’t Ya Tell Henry” and we all pitched in on “I Don’t Want To Hang Up My Rock And Roll Shoes”.

Snow was falling hard all the time we were playing. It turned out to be the worst storm since 1947, so if we’d all ended up trapped there for days, at least we would have had songs to sing.

As it was just ten days later, I found myself in another band with Levon at a Howlin’ Wolf tribute at “B.B. King’s” on 42nd St. featuring Hubert Sumlin. That night everything was just as it should be in the drum department, which is not always the case when heavy hands batter the blues.

Now given what I’d witnessed at The Ramble, it seemed natural to invite Levon and Allen to be part of an edition of the “Spectacle” television programme that I hosted for two seasons.

The official premise for the show was that we were constructing a one-time-only band. In reality, all of the participants knew that we were really saluting Levon but I feared that he might not agree to take part if it were put to him that way.

I plotted out a four-act show.

Richard Thompson would open the show backed by the Imposters rhythm section. Then Allen Toussaint would join us at the piano, before Nick Lowe took over the bass chair.

We picked out numbers that could introduce each songwriter in turn and they would come together as an ensemble for a finale with everything pointing in Levon’s direction.

Richard, Allen and Nick each had rich and affectionate things to say about the influence of The Band and particularly Levon’s contribution to the group but it was the fourth act that threatened to be problematic.

I had heard in advance that Levon was again suffering from vocal strain and would be unlikely to be able to sing. Although this was disappointing, his vocal well-being was far more important than any T.V. show and we had plenty of vocalists on hand to cover the musical selections. But I didn’t anticipate what Levon would tell me when I greeted him at the Apollo Theatre.

“I’d like to help you out but I can’t sing. I CAN’T TALK!!!”

Despite the fact that Levon was actually doing rather more talking backstage than he probably should have done, while greeting his cohorts, it was clear that he shouldn't speak under the strain of stage lights and cameras.

This might have made for a three-legged beast but fortunately I arrived at a solution that seemed to appeal to Levon’s sense of humour. I would list drummers who I imagined featured in his personal hit parade, if he would respond with a drum fill.

So, we began our “Mister Ed” act…

“Earl Palmer” received an enthusiastic roll around the toms.

“Ziggy Modeliste”, triggered a funky little hi-hat fill.

"Peck Curtis" received a press roll and a cymbal smash that sounded like a round of applause but then Levon had purchased and preserved Mr. Curtis' hand painted kit from his days playing with Sonny Boy Williamson on the "King Biscuit Time" radio show on KFFA and put it on display in the Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas.  

“Jimmy Lee Keltner”, as Levon called him, brought another affectionate rimshot and tom tattoo, followed by an expression of surprise at the unexpected inclusion in the list of Lightning Hopkins’ drummer “Spider Kilpatrick”.

The drums were all that Levon needed to speak to the crowd.

In the end, the notion of an integral four-piece band was sacrificed to the joy there was to be had in all playing together.

Levon insisted that Pete Thomas play alongside him through the finale and Nick Lowe handed the bass back to Davey Faragher after one tune and picked up a guitar and with Larry Campbell augmenting on electric alongside Richard Thompson, we set about playing some music.

Ray Lamontagne, who had taped an edition of the show earlier in the week, had stayed in town specifically to see Levon perform and agreed to join us in the closing performance of “The Weight” which brought the show to just exactly the sort of wonderfully chaotic and joyful climax that seemed so suited to it’s honouree.

The last time I sang with Levon was in the summer of 2010, when I sat in with his band at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver. He was back singing a little, sharing the vocal duties with the members of the ensemble but playing drums and mandolin with such command.

The songs we played that night, the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” – which might have been written for him to sing – “I Shall Be Released” and “The Weight” never felt better.

However, the memory that will always live with me was of singing “Tears Of Rage”. There seemed to be so much space between each backbeat without the song ever dragging. I finally understood from the inside out, how much Levon’s drumming must have liberated, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko’s singing - two more of the marvels of the recorded era.

I’ve sung this beautiful song since I was 17 years old, coming in time after time to an appreciation of its mystery and sorrows or at least my own comprehension of them.

Needless to say, we played "Tears Of Rage" again tonight at the Casinorama. Next to the surreal experience of singing it in an acoustic duo with the author of its lyric in St Louis, a few years back, the Vancouver rendition would be hard to top but tonight’s performance was certainly heartfelt.

Pete Thomas told me that he switched to an underhand grip such as Levon employed for that number and it was then that the emotion of playing the song came flooding in. He and Levon got on famously, as drummers do.

Yet it seemed wrong, even presumptuous to end on such a somber note, even if life is so terribly brief, even at 71, so we played "Peace Love and Understanding" to raise the roof and then closed with the Dead's "Ramble On Rose".

We'd learned this song just a week ago for a San Francisco surprise and reprised it when the Boston Celtics' legendary Deadhead, Bill Walton came up to spin the Wheel in San Diego three nights ago, but which, for this evening's purposes, was dedicated, if not sung as, "Ramble On, Levon".

And "Amen" to that...