By WILLIAM SHANNON
A year and a half before he died, Levon Helm and his band were about to take the stage at John Gill’s Farm outside Kingston to play a free Sunday concert—an annual tradition during Helm’s comeback years. A Pumpkin cannon launched in the distance and a hayride wagon carrying families meandered in a field beyond the stage.
My father and I stood along Route 209, since the grassy area in front of the stage was packed with people. Barbara O’Brien, Helm’s manager, announced before the show, as she sometimes did, that Levon’s voice wasn’t cooperating that day. Helm, famous for his work with The Band, had recovered from throat cancer and had managed to regain his well-known voice, though it was often touch-and-go.
In part to help pay his medical bills, Helm had started the Midnight Rambles, an intimate weekly concert in his barn in Woodstock. Famous special guests were common. In the years after his voice came back, Helm released three new albums, all of which won Grammys. His annual show around harvest time at Gill’s Farm was, I think, a way both to support his friend John Gill and to give a free show for Hudson Valley residents who couldn’t afford to make it to very many rambles.
Levon smiled widely and waved to the crowd as he took the stage. Guitarist and bandleader Larry Campbell and Levon’s daughter, Amy, sang lead on the songs as the set commenced.
But between numbers about halfway through the set, Levon motioned to his band members and they talked for a few moments.
Levon pulled the drum-side microphone closer.
The group kicked into The Band’s hit “Ophelia.”
“Boards on the window, mail by the door,” Levon sung out, “what would anybody leave so quickly for, Ophelia…where have you gone…”
My father summed that moment up when, as the song ended to an enthusiastic crowd, he said, a tad choked up, "Pretty incredible."
Helm died in April 2012 after the cancer he beat for ten-plus years resurged. On the anniversary of his death Sunday, it was open house at Levon's—the site of the Midnight Rambles and a still-open concert venue.
As my father and I on Sunday pulled into the easy-to-miss driveway, where we were once fortunate enough to see one of Levon’s rambles, the lasting effect the man had was clear. The parking lot was so full that cars were only being let in as others left. We went over to the pond adjacent to Levon’s house, where a few dozen other people were lounging in the sun and the shade. Levon’s dog, Muddy, wandered about, investigating. Inside, others were filtering through the barn and the downstairs shop area.
When my father and I had gone to the Ramble, it struck us as particularly telling that prominently placed amid all sorts of major rock accolades, awards and albums hanging on a wall near the shop area was a “pride of Ulster County” certificate, which was still there Sunday.
I never met Levon, but I felt like I knew him. Seeing how he interacted with audiences the four or five times I saw him cemented how I viewed him: An authentic man from another era, with respect for everyone, whose incredible talent spoke for itself.
When it was announced a few days before his death that he was “in the final stages of his battle with cancer,” it felt like a family member was on his deathbed.
Soon after Helm’s death, Bill Flanagan on CBS Sunday Morning found a way to reframe the loss of a legend.
“The last 10 miraculous years gave Levon a sort of extended victory lap. Fans got to tell him how much they loved him. Musicians lined up to honor him,” Flanagan said on the air. “It was as if Heaven decided to give Levon an extra decade, just so we could all hear his songs one more time. Just to give Levon and the people who loved him a proper chance to say goodbye. In the whole history of rock ’n roll, no one ever had a greater encore than Levon Helm.”
The number of people who took advantage of a chance just to hang around where Levon once played and lived shows that fans continue to look for ways to say goodbye.