Back in October, a unprecedented group of artists came together to pay tribute to the late Levon Helm for one night only at New Jersey’s Izod Center. Gregg Allman and Warren Haynes from The Allman Brothers Band, Joe Walsh from The Eagles, country stars Dierks Bentley and Eric Church, John Mayer, My Morning Jacket and Pink Floyd mastermind Roger Waters all played songs that Helm performed, both as a member of The Band and and on his final solo albums, 2007’s Dirt Farmer and 2009’s Electric Dirt. (Read our review of the concert here.)
Radio.com spoke to the event’s co-musical director, Don Was, about Love For Levon, which was later released on CD, DVD and BluRay. Was has produced all of the Rolling Stones’ albums for two decades, and has helmed sessions for Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Elton John and Ringo Starr, just to name a few. But he said that the Love For Levon show was one of the highlights of his career.
“The whole experience of being involved in the organization of, and the rehearsals, and the show, was a beautiful experience,” Was said. “It’s something – if you get four or five of those in the course of a lifetime, you’re doing well. That was definitely one of those nights: it was a life-altering and life-affirming thing. It sounds like bull**** but it’s really true. The whole was greater than the sum of the parts, and the sum of the parts was pretty spectacular.”
The show (and the live releases) raised funds for Helm’s family, to help them to maintain the Levon Helm Studio in Woodstock, N.Y., and continue the series of Midnight Ramble Sessions concerts there. That iconic spot was where Was and musical co-director Larry Campbell, a long-time member of Helm’s band, held rehearsals.
“It was a big deal to be in that house and play those songs,” Was said. “The Dirt Farm and Electric Dirt albums were recorded there. When Roger Waters was singing ‘Wide River To Cross’ during rehearsals, he was standing on the spot where Levon stood to record it. It amped up the resonance.”
With such a lineup of great artists, how do you decide who does which song?
“We talked to them [the performers],” he said. “What do you say when Roger Waters calls up? ‘What do you want to do?’ You don’t want to ask someone to do a song that they don’t have an affinity for. You just hope that they choose one that isn’t already taken.”
Was added that several performers wanted to take a crack at the Band’s classic “The Night The Drove Old Dixie Down,” which ultimately went to Waters.
Some of the choices were simple: “John Hiatt did [The Band’s] ‘Rag Mama Rag.’ If you listen to the original, it sounds like John Hiatt! And Joe Walsh doing ‘Up On Cripple Creek,’ that felt like a natural choice.”
“Grace Potter does ‘I Shall Be Released’ when she performs,” Was says, mentioning that that was another easy choice. In fact, Was’ initial introduction to Potter was a YouTube clip of her covering the song.
“A very interesting call was Jakob Dylan,” Was says, noting that the young Dylan tends to avoid treading ground to similar to that of his father. Of course, Helm and The Band came to prominence as Bob Dylan’s backing band.
“I didn’t really discuss all the layers of irony in there, but he obviously didn’t want to go with something that his dad was associated with,” Was explained. “His dad did a version of a a Woody Guthrie song ‘I Ain’t Got No Home’ with The Band. Jakob texted me, and said ‘Lets do “I Ain’t Got No Home,”‘ and I thought, ‘Really! That’s bold!’ I started rehearsing with the band and thought, I’d just better double check. ‘Just to make sure: is it the Woody Guthrie song or the (Clarence) ‘Frogman’ Henry song?’ He said, ‘Oh the ‘Frogman’ Henry song!’ That was pretty sly! I think he was cognizant of all that.”
Roger Waters, who was just coming off his The Wall mega-tour at the time, emerged as one of the tribute’s highlights, but Was said actually wasn’t too familiar with Waters’ material.
“I wasn’t in a state of awe, automatically, but I really admired the way he worked,” Was said. “And the way he approached the rehearsals and the soundcheck and how thorough he was and how he showed up early to make sure everything was right. I see that [quality] in Mick Jagger.”
Happily, Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles live on, at least for now. The next Ramble at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, New York will be on March 30, and will feature, among others, Larry Campell and Helm’s daughter, Amy Helm. For more information, go to the official Midnight Ramble website.