Snow was general over the mountains, just a little more to the north, but Woodstock basked over Thanksgiving weekend in chilly air and the last fall leaves, hanging on and brightening the streets and yards of the little town. The big tulip poplars, shining, stayed gold in the graveyard that covers the right-hand side of Rock City Road, heading out of town. Before we went to the launch of Peter Aaron’s new book, The Band FAQ (Backbeat, 2016), we stopped by to say hello to Rick and Levon… as we often do.
The launch, arranged by The Golden Notebook — one of the best independent bookstores you could ever hope to find, and right across Tinker Street from the venue — was at the Kleinert/James Center of the Byrdcliffe Guild, an American treasure for arts in all media since 1902. In Woodstock, the embarrassment of riches for such an event is evident, when a book launch to do with the Band is combined with a conversation with friends of the musicians — Elliott Landy and Happy Traum — and a concert of their songs.
Landy had the eye they needed to make their first album cover, most literally, the rock of ages. Asked by Albert Grossman to photograph “the guys in the band” with no name, yet, for their first record, Landy grappled with locations and ideas. “We drive all over the place,” he remembered, and the first two shoots gained nothing. Then he paged through a book of Civil War photographs and thought of ways in which the men were connected to the faces from the past. “I hadn’t heard their music yet,” Landy grins. He would go on to take over 15,000 photographs of Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson — as well as photographing his friend and neighbor Bob Dylan (one of Landy’s portraits is on the cover of Nashville Skyline, 1969).
Traum recalled his first meeting with all the musicians who would form The Band. It was at Bob Dylan’s house; Dylan and Traum had met in 1962, and when Dylan moved to Woodstock, his young family and that of Happy and Jane Traum were friends. One of Traum’s sons was on the floor, playing with the Dylans’ Saint Bernard, Buster. “They came in, and Levon just walked over to Adam and scooped him up. It’s how he was, from the start.” Helm and Traum would remain dear friends from that afternoon in late 1967 until Helm’s passing in 2012. “Rick was just a great guy, so warm, fun loving,” Traum said. “And Richard, so wry, and also funny.” The manner in which the voices of Helm, Danko, and Manuel would take turns, intertwine, and complement each other is something Traum appreciates and acknowledged. Robertson, he says, was “always more serious”; Traum mentioned his songwriting skills with admiration. And as to Garth? Traum laughed. Hudson deserves his reputation as a musician’s best professor. “If you wanted to know about your accordion tuning, get set for four hours of explanation.”
With young local musicians on a fast rise, Traum played and sang songs of the Band. Connor Kennedy of Saugerties and Woodstock, who has been playing a guitar and writing songs since he was a child — and who spent last summer and fall opening for The Waterboys and the Gipsy Kings — led his band Minstrel into a sweet, rompy “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” He and Traum sang “the Levon Lyrics” (pretty little girl from Greece, etc.). Mike + Ruthy — Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar — of West Hurley and Woodstock turned in a gorgeous “Bessie Smith.” Ruthy, Woodstock musical royalty (she is the daughter of Jay Ungar and Lyn Hardy, and stepdaughter of Molly Mason), wielded a fine fiddle when she was not singing with small daughter Opal riding piggyback.
There was barely time, and yet there was time, after the show for supper at The Garden Café, catty-corner across the village green. A vegetarian restaurant in Woodstock? But of course, you might smile. Well, I accept no skepticism about Lea’s magisterial lasagna, far better than any meat ones I’ve ever eaten, and the steaming soups and rich berry-and-fruit desserts on a cold night. Delighted, too full, but ready to dance, we wended down the road to Plochmann Lane, and up to Levon Helm’s house.
The Levon Helm Studios, home for most of a bright, brilliant decade to the Midnight Rambles with Helm at the helm, continue today to “keep it goin,'” as Levon requested just before his death. Local artists who played with him there, from daughter Amy Helm and Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, Traum and John Sebastian, and guests from afar, like Phil Lesh and Jackie Greene, who have both returned since Helm’s passing, are glad to oblige. Last Saturday night, Scott Sharrard, guitar genius, former Woodstocker, and longtime bandleader for Gregg Allman, came to “The Barn” with a host of guests.
Sharrard is headed to Muscle Shoals, and Memphis, with a flock of new songs and a record on the way. He was palpably happy to premiere some for us, like the gentle “Keep Me In Your Heart,” with his Brickyard Band. Quietly, he paid tribute to Helm: as it happened, Sharrard played in the last Ramble Levon himself hosted at the house. Bill Sims, who had opened the show, returned for a gorgeous, deep-blue cover of Dylan’s “Meet Me In The Morning.” Kennedy, who must have missed supper that evening, stood on his second stage of the evening to play and sing along with Sharrard — his former guitar teacher. Bruce Katz sat down at the keyboards to play alongside his former student, the remarkable Eric Finland. Amy Helm had included Sharrard in her Friday night show; her young sons, comfortable in their noise-canceling headphones, watched as she sang in their grandpa’s house. It was that kind of night. The past and present, flourishing simultaneously, cannot be rated highly enough when it comes to engendering both great music — and personal connection and affection.