Grateful Dead's Phil Lesh lights up Midnight Ramble, Levon Helm fundraiser taking off

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Phil Lesh, the legendary bassist with the Grateful Dead, opened an emotional Saturday night performance at the late Levon Helm’s studio with “Cumberland Blues.”

That kicked off a 14-song set which also included “Up on Cripple Creek” — one of the signature songs from Helm’s tenure in the Band — and reportedly concluded with a rousing encore of the Dead’s “Casey Jones.” The Levon Helm web page published a complete set list from last evening’s show, one of the first since the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s passing, and it’s included below.

There had been some question, subsequent to Helm’s death earlier this year after a lengthy battle with cancer, as to whether these barn-show hootenannys — lovingly referred to a Midnight Rambles by Helm — would go forward. But organizers say that continuing the event was one of Helm’s last wishes.

“The Ramble last night was so uplifting, so full of life,” Barbara O’Brien, Helm’s long-time manager, said in a new Facebook posting. “Thank you, Phil, for taking the time from your schedule to make a pit-stop at the barn. Keep the Rambles alive at Terrapin on the West Coast — and y’all come back again, real soon!”

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: The new ‘All The Years Combine’ DVD set, with 38 hours of footage, is a definitive visual exploration of the Grateful Dead’s heady blend of American musical styles.]

Meanwhile, O’Brien has announced that a special feature in the newly formed “Keep It Goin'” fundraising initiative has already sold out: Every one of the “golden pick” name plates (pictured above) has been claimed for a new piece of artwork created by artist Sheila Gilday to go on display in an interior wall at the Helm studios.

“What an amazing response from Levon’s fans,” O’Brien said. “Thank you and “Keep It Goin!'”

All proceeds go to cover the Midnight Ramble operating expenses, and the studio mortgage. Other donation gifts include T-shirts, and an exclusive digital download of a never-before-heard 2009 performance of “Drown in My Own Tears” by Helm.

Helm launched the Rambles in 2004, after his initial round of chemo treatments, hoping to offset medical expenses. The events quickly become guest-packed house parties, with notable appearances by luminaries like Emmylou Harris, Donald Fagen and Mavis Staples, among many, many others, even as Helm himself saw a third-act career renaissance — releasing three consecutive critically lauded solo albums. His 2007 comeback album Dirt Farmer earned a Grammy for best traditional folk album. The follow up Electric Dirt then won the first-ever Grammy for best Americana album in 2010. Ramble at the Ryman, issued last year, won in the same category.

Phil Lesh’s complete set list from the Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm Studios, July 21, 2012, per the Levon Helm web page:

Cumberland Blues
Whiskey in the Jar
Up on Cripple Creek
Till the Morning Comes
Folsom Prison
River and Roads
Old Man
Black Peter
Big River
Goin Down the Road
Casey Jones

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Here’s a look back at our recent thoughts on Levon Helm. Click through the titles for complete reviews …

GIMME FIVE: CELEBRATING LEVON HELM, CO-FOUNDER AND VOICE OF THE BAND: The loamy voiced, rail-jumping rhythmic center point of the Band, Helm re-emerged in the last decade after an initial diagnosis to reclaim his mantle as yearning storyteller and timeless soul singer. Three straight Grammy awards followed, starting in 2008. Unfortunately, Helm’s third-act triumphs in the studio were matched pace for pace by his illness. Helm, 71, is now said to be in the final stages of his cancer battle. The Arkansas native leaves behind, however, a series of lasting musical statements. Those Grammys helped to underscore Helm’s importance, within the Band and within the broader landscape of American roots music – but it is here, within the songs, that it becomes manifest. Even after all of that, Helm’s signature style remained. His playing was an involving mixture of rhythm and emotion – someone once said he was the only drummer who can make you cry – while his singing remained a wonder of ribald bewilderment, old-time religion and shotgun shack-rattling joy.

LEVON HELM – RAMBLE AT THE RYMAN (2011): We’re reminded again here that Levon Helm was the loamy voiced, rail-jumping rhythmic center point of the Band, its yearning storyteller and gritty soul. Their records were drawn from continuity, bringing in dizzyingly diverse, age-old influences and performed in a chorus as if by brothers. That has always made a treasure hunt out of selecting any individual triumph on their old records. Not here, as this Ramble becomes a showcase for Helm. It’s also an important reminder: The Band’s principal songwriting credits may have gone to Robbie Robertson, but they were then — and are here, again — often completely inhabited by Helm’s carnal Arkansas drawl.

LEVON HELM – ELECTRIC DIRT (2009): Nothing drove old Levon Helm down. Not the messy dissolution of his group, The Band; the perhaps inevitable subsequent financial ruin; a terrifying bout with throat cancer; a pair of shatteringly tragic deaths within his inner circle; or a yawning quarter century span between solo records that made him all but obscure in modern musical circles. There is, of course, a dark and deep sense of loss — this candid accounting of, and quiet mourning for, the old times, the old ways, the old friends that fans of some of The Band’s best-known Helm-sung tunes (“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “The Weight,” and “Up on Cripple Creek”) will recognize. But Helm sings with the bone-deep confidence of someone who has eyeballed our biggest fears and lived to tell the tale.

LEVON HELM – DIRT FARMER (2007): His earthy, Arkansas drawl epitomized the roots-minded rock combo The Band just as much as Robbie Robertson’s evocative compositions on American folklore. And now he’s back with a rare studio album that makes The Band sound like a sleek, electronica dance music. There’s not a trace of a plugged-in instrument anywhere and amongst songs by Steve Earle and J.B. Lenoir are songs that aren’t even copyrighted anymore. But Helm’s steady drumming and blessedly rural warble remains. That should be plenty good enough for any fan of The Band.

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