The Church of Levon: The Religious Experience of Visiting Levon Helm Studios

Music is a force, a force that triggers emotions, not unlike religion. This force can elicit elation. It can contribute to sorrow. As a social experiment, a concert reveals emotions across that spectrum. It is the rare occasion, however, that a venue can do the same. Enter, Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, NY.

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Affectionately known as “The Barn,” Levon Helm Studios is a nondescript building set off a country road on the outer edges of Woodstock. This building has an air of reverence about it as soon as you approach it. Once inside, its easy to get the feeling of being inside a church. High, vaulted ceilings with impeccable woodwork force one to take in the architecture. It’s not uncommon to see first-timers looking around with jaws agape at the craftsmanship that went into building this structure.

The story of The Barn has its origins as the home and recording studio of Levon Helm. Helm was best known as the drummer for The Band but also took turns acting in such films as “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Right Stuff” and “Feeling Minnesota” among others.  The Arkansas-born musician grew up with minstrel shows and wanted to recreate that in his home studio. What became known as The Midnight Ramble was born out of necessity, but also out of a love for the informal feel of a simple jam session. Helm’s Midnight Rambles began in 2004. Word spread in the musical community and Helm and his Midnight Ramble Band (guitarist/mandolinist/fiddler Larry Campbell, guitarist Jimmy Vivino, Helm’s daughter Amy and Campbell’s wife Teresa Williams) began attracting the likes of Elvis Costello, Phil Lesh, Dr. John, Emmylou Harris, My Morning Jacket and Norah Jones to this tiny Catskills hamlet two hours north of New York City.

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When Helm died in April of 2012, his final words to Amy and his manager Barbara O’Brien were, “Keep it going.” And keep it going they have. The Midnight Rambles occur regularly and provide an opportunity for musicians of Helm’s ilk to “keep it going.”

The magic that occurs at The Barn isn’t just with the music and the venue. What is truly magical about this venue, is experiencing the reactions of first-time attendees. NYS Music photographer Brian Cornish attended his first Ramble with his brother in 2006. The joy in his retelling of his first Ramble is consistent with so many others who have experienced this jewel of a venue:

It was November of 2006. My brother had heard about these house parties in Woodstock where you could buy a ticket and listen to Levon Helm sing and play, and the kicker was that it was in his own home/studio. We decided to go. Following the opening act, with no fanfare and no announcement, Helm and his band emerged and walked down a hallway to the studio. He preferred to set up on stage left, to be able to look directly at all of the other musicians and catch their eye, read their moves, maybe give them a cue or a nod, or maybe grin and point a drumstick at someone approvingly at the end of a song. Due to this atypical arrangement, we astonishingly found ourselves seated at his left elbow, six feet or so from an American treasure. With a brief flourish on the snare drum, he set the tempo, the horns kicked in, and the band followed. “Boards on the window, mail by the door…” The entire crowd was immediately dancing, tapping their feet, or singing along. It was magical. It still is.

Cornish’s proximity to Helm during his first Ramble is what makes this venue so unique and keeps people coming back. You’re not attending a concert at Levon Helm Studios. You’re celebrating music in a pure listening room with friends, friends you know and friends you just haven’t yet met. The capacity is around 200 and there isn’t a bad spot in the house. It lends itself to chatting with your neighbor between songs and the chance of chatting with any of the musicians at some point during the night.

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Amy Helm taking in a performance at “The Barn”

Cornish continues with another Ramble experience:

One time, I and a few friends were seated behind the keyboards so we could look across the room at Levon. A man emerged to the right of my friends, stood at the end of the row, nodded hello, and exchanged small talk between songs in the semi-darkness. After ten or fifteen minutes, he said, “It’s been nice talking to you folks, but I have to go to work.” Only when he was under the stage lights and grabbed his guitar did we realize we’d been chatting with John Prine. Unannounced drop-in guest appearances and unexpected moments are hallmarks of many Midnight Rambles.

Cornish has made it his mission to introduce as many of his music-loving friends as possible to this experience by gifting a ticket to a first-timer as long as the next time that person goes, he or she brings another first-timer and does the same. This writer was the recipient of one such gifted ticket to a Ramble. We were joined by two other music loving friends, Dan Frieden and Rob Bishton for a performance of Amy Helm and Friends on Black Friday 2015.  What made this performance so incredibly special was the appearance of Donald Fagen of Steely Dan sitting in for a performance of his band’s “Black Friday.” The fact that this musical legend was mere feet away from us during this performance was not lost on us that night and is the stuff that will be remembered for a lifetime. Two new converts to the Church of Levon were made that night.

A visit to Woodstock isn’t complete without stopping by Big Pink, the house rented by the members of The Band as they killed time waiting for Bob Dylan to recover from injuries suffered in a motorcycle accident in 1966. Dylan lived in Woodstock at the time and the members of what would become The Band were members of Dylan’s backing band. Band members Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson lived in this rental in the town of West Saugerties and spent time in the basement recording covers and Dylan originals. The time spent at Big Pink, so named for the pink siding that adorned the house, solidified The Band’s sound and resulted in the oft-bootlegged and finally released album The Basement Tapes in 1975.

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Each time this writer visits Levon Helm Studios, a visit to Big Pink is on the itinerary, as well as a stop at Catskill Mountain Pizza Company,  a pilgrimage if you will. It will be left to the reader as to how to find this legendary abode. Anyone familiar with the music of Dylan or The Band can feel the ghosts surrounding this property. Frieden described it this way:

There is an energy at Big Pink. I had never been a big Dylan fan, but being on a property that sparked so much musical creativity made me wonder what it is that really flipped the artists’ “on” switch.

A recent visit to Woodstock for a performance by Joe Henry and Rose Cousins on December 9 indoctrinated April and Enzo Cacciatore to The Barn and Big Pink. Witnessing each of them as they took in the entire experience is what sharing a Ramble is all about.

The nearly two and a half hour trip from Rome took longer than anticipated due to a Nor’easter clipping the southeast section of the state. Despite that, a visit to Big Pink still occurred as did a dinner of pizza and craft beers at Catskill Mountain. Traveling through Downtown Woodstock during Christmas season, especially in the midst of a snow storm, is magical in itself. The storefronts are all decorated as is the town square. The snow cover offered an added air of peacefulness to the town that prides itself on the ideal of peace.

Adding to the family gathering atmosphere at the barn is the communal food table in the merchandise area. Each person is asked to bring a “dish to pass” just like at the potluck dinners of yore. This communal space in what would normally be a garage, is a place for all to gather, share food and talk music. Here, you’ll hear tales of past shows at The Barn or encounters with musicians. This is also the area where the artists’ merchandise is sold, often by themselves after their set, as was the case with Rose Cousins on this night. Cousins was friendly and quick with a joke with each person she dealt with.

Once inside, the Cacciatores took in every inch of the space. Enzo has been in the construction business as a licensed plumber and pipe fitter for almost 40 years. He’s a man who appreciates good construction and good music. He and his wife, April are 17-year veterans of the Poconos Blues Festival and regularly attend the Chenango Blues Festival. His pure appreciation for the architecture of the room was worth the price of admission. He commented that the room is perfectly built for acoustics.

April is a massage therapist and completely took in the arts-centered culture of Woodstock. Those who know April, know she wears her heart on her sleeve and this was clear in her appreciation of the music that she was just being exposed to on this night. She warned earlier in the day that tears may flow early and often throughout the show and while that can’t be proven, the emotion exhibited on stage between Cousins’ and Henry’s sets would lean this writer to believe that there were some tears shed.

Joe Henry is no stranger to this setting. His previous performance at Levon Helm Studios was with British folk/punk troubadour Billy Bragg in 2016 as they were touring their train songs album, Shine a Light. Henry commented during his performance that he and his band don’t view a stop at The Barn as just another tour stop. He likened it to being at a church, deserving of reverence.

The fact that a venue such as Levon Helm Studios exists in the age of big sheds and ticket brokers is a miracle in itself. The down-home flavor that accompanies the attendance at a Ramble and the pure magic of the room itself makes this venue a required trip for any music aficionado.

Upcoming shows at Levon Helm Studios include blues guitarist Carolyn Wonderland on January 19, The Weight Band on February 17, David Bromberg on March 3, the Zombies on March 9 and Jorma Kaukonen on March 10. To purchase tickets, you must visit the studio’s website. You will not receive a physical ticket, but rather a wristband with a number. The number on your wristband determines when you are allowed to enter the venue to claim your spot.

Join the congregation. You won’t regret the services, that’s for sure.

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