JAMMIN’ WITH LEVON John McEuen

Legend meets legend: the
famed Dirt Band multiinstrumentalist helps The Band’s Levon Helm blow out some 70th birthday candles up in Woodstock.

 

BY JOHN McEUEN

 

Oh, What a Night! I
didn’t know “sitting in” at Levon Helm’s 70th birthday party was going
to
remind me what music was about in such a powerful manner, but it did,
song
after song. There were enough musicians for two bands, but everyone
graciously
made room for each other for solos and, although I felt like the guy on
the
lowest rung of the music ladder, they backed me like it was my ladder. 

Levon’s spirited attitude and obvious love of what he is doing
draws you in, as
he sets down the perfect feel for whatever song is played. When I wasn’t
playing, I stood next to his drums, and it was wonderful to hear them in
his
hands – they weren’t loud, but musical. 

Levon Helm has
been one of my favorite music influences since he first opened that
door to mixing up Americana
acoustic sensibilities and singing with drums, piano, and mandolin;
well, rock
and roll in the way that I liked it. I think he saved the Dirt Band back
when
The Band’s Music From Big Pink came
out. 

In 1968 the NGDB was in Baker, Oregon, for
four long months of ‘work’ on Paramount’s
Paint Your Wagon. Jeff and I listened to the just released Pink every day after our 12 hour set
days. It was in the cards, I think, that when the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
disbanded after Wagon, and Jeff and I
put it back together 6 months later, that the Big Pink album –
with its half-time drum master showing the way –
would give as a great viewpoint for some our new music. 

Levon’s friendship and hospitality brought me back to that time, the
’60s haze,
when I never thought I could even meet someone of his caliber, and now
we were
playing together. Had not done that since The Band played Wisconsin’s
Mole Lake Bluegrass Festival,
and I opened for them in 1990. That was a great night, and happened not
long
after I had composed the music score for a film Levon was starring in, The
Man Outside
.

They brought David Amram back up to the stage
when I was jamming with the Helm
band with Helm at the helm, as I had invited him to play with me on my
set. He
blew the room away, as usual. 

Even though there were enough
musicians for two bands, everyone graciously made
room for each other for solos. Donald Fagen was great as expected, and
the
4-man horn section killed, as did the B-3 player, standup bass, guitar
pickers
and chick singers. 

Somewhere around hour 2, the horn section
started marching around the room
during a Dixieland style song, and the place went nuts. It actually went
nuts
about every 15-20 minutes over this 3 hour set, with the rest just
getting by
with rousing approval and loud applause.

Bandleader Larry
Campbell was equally masterful fingerpicking acoustic and
searing electric guitars, as well as a variety of vocals in styles all
over the
Americana
musicscape. AND, he played fiddle.. and really did it right. He
suggested we
twin fiddle on one, and then that I sing ‘Circle Be Unbroken’…and we
did.

Double fiddles with ‘Diggy Liggy Lo’ sung and played by
Larry; a ‘Circle/Sunnyside’
medley sung and played by me… ‘The Weight’… All with this incredible
band
behind me of stellar players. You know that if they are playing with
Levon,
they are stellar. And although I felt like the guy on the lowest rung of
the
music ladder, they treated me like it was my ladder while playing
backing me.

The room stood up and sang ‘Circle,’ and I think
the roof raised a bit when the
girl took the lead at the end. It really was chilling and hot at the
same time!
Amram’s tin whistle solos got such a rousing response every time he took
one I
asked him after the show to ‘please play a little less… you’re too
hard to
follow’… and of course we laughed about that.

I had played
with the Band a couple of times, but this was the most fun jamming
since Bill Monroe joined me in a Swiss bar in 1993.

 

But, that’s
another story…

 

John McEuen’s tenure with
the Dirt Band, a/k/a the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, is among Americana’s richest and most fruitful. Seriously – did we mention the dude’s a legend? Do we
even need to mention the ground-breaking NGDB-steered album
May The Circle Be Unbroken? His tutelage of ace banjo player Steve
Martin (you may have heard of him…)?  If
you need more convincing, why not check out his “Acoustic Traveller” program
that airs on XM Satellite Radio (“The Village,” channel 15) the first Tuesday
of each month. Oh, and by the way – he plays Bonnaroo this weekend and then
heads off onto a tour that stretches through the end of July. Tour dates at his
MySpace page and his official website.

 

 

 

 

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