Even as Levon Helm Memorial Boulevard was officially dedicated last week in New York’s Ulster County, the late Band drummer and vocalist’s concert space was a flurry of musical activity, with Moonalice getting set to perform at the Midnight Ramble.
“It was a really moving day for us,” Helm’s daughter Amy tells us in this exclusive SER Sitdown.
Yes, Levon’s fabled Saturday night get togethers have continued at the Helm Studios in Woodstock, despite his having lost a cancer battle in April of 2012. Amy, a key member of her father’s touring unit, is also playing host to a regular local-band feature called “Friday Nights at Levon’s Barn.” Helm was also honored with a star-packed concert dubbed Love for Levon in March, followed by a DVD release.
[THE BAND, SONG BY SONG: On Thursdays, Nick DeRiso is exploring the ageless musical heritage of the Band, together and as individual solo artists, in a song-by-song series called 'Across the Great Divide.']
Up next: The home-viewing edition of Ain’t In It For My Health, a documentary on Helm’s life, is due on October 8, 2013. Then Jim Weider, a late-period member of the Band, is set to perform at the October 19 edition of the Ramble, along with Amy, Rodney Holmes (Santana, Brecker Brothers), Steve Lucas (Bruce Cockburn), Clifford Carter (James Taylor), and others. Some music fans might even end up taking old Route 375 to get there, passing the newly posted highway signs in Levon Helm’s honor.
Amy Helm took a short breather from this break-neck period to discuss the efforts to keep her father’s dreams for the Barn going, the emotions surrounding his overdue late-career recognition, and plans for her own solo debut in 2014 …
NICK DERISO: You and the other kids of Band members were in this toy-stuffed playroom during the filming of The Last Waltz. Did you get to a chance to sneak a peek at any of the show?
AMY HELM: I did, yes. I did a sneak a peek — with five-year-old eyes. (Laughs.) If I could go back and sneak a peek now, if I could put myself back into that time and know what I wanted to see and why I wanted to see it, that would be pretty cool. But when you’re five, it’s the last thing on your mind. If there’s a snack table nearby, and a cartoon being played, that’s what you’re going to go for.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: With "Electric Dirt,' we saw that nothing would drive old Levon Helm down -- not the messy dissolution of the Band, subsequent financial ruin or a terrifying bout with throat cancer.]
NICK DERISO: Levon’s Grammy-winning comeback album Dirt Farmer, which you co-produced, began a huge career resurgence. What was it like to see him finally receive that recognition?
AMY HELM: It was thrilling. It was obviously very well deserved, and very inspiring as a musician to see someoone who is a hero to so many other musicians really get their deserved respect and place in the musical world.
NICK DERISO: What were those first shows like with him, back in the late 1990s? Are there lessons you still carry with you?
AMY HELM: Playing with him was playing with someone who was mastering his instrument as a drummer, and rediscovering himself as a singer. It was hugely inspiring on every level, to be around someone in that part of their journey as a working musician. He had a really amazing resurgence of his whole musical life.
NICK DERISO:You’re planning your own solo debut, right? Tell us about that project.
AMY HELM: It was produced by my friend Byron Isaacs (who, like Amy, toured as a member of Levon Helm’s band). It’s been a record that I’ve been working on, off and on, for years. I’ve kind of gotten it in a place where it’s ready to go, and I’m hoping to release it early next year. A lot of different musicians play on it, some fantastic players. Chris Masterson (Steve Earle, Loretta Lynn, Shooter Jennings) is a guitar player who plays on it. My father played on some tracks. There’s a lot of players on it. Larry Campbell (Levon Helm, Bob Dylan) played on it. I’ve gotten to use almost every one of my favorite singers on this record. I have some kick-ass background vocals. That’s the thing I like the most about the album, actually. The backgrounds are amazing. I can’t even begin to name them. They’re some of the dear friends, and some of my favorite singers. So, I’m excited about it.
NICK DERISO: What has it meant to you personally to see all of this activity around the Barn?
AMY HELM: I think what what my father was really all about was not only making music, but creating a venue and a place and stage for musicians to work. He wanted to build something where people could work and play and get better at what they do, and where people could come and hear live music and be enriched in their lives. So, I think that everything continuing forward as a real musical landmark, and a venue for live music for continuing emerging artists, is exactly what he would have wanted.
NICK DERISO: Many of these projects have served as fundraisers to keep the Barn open and running. How are those efforts going?
AMY HELM: They’ve been great. They’ve been fantastic. We have a strong community in Woodstock that’s behind us, and I think that there’s as much a need for it from people who want to hear live music and people who want to play live music, as there is for us to try to keep it going. I’m feeling very confident about the Rambles and the Barn taking their place in the musical community.
[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: With 2011's live document 'Ramble at the Ryman,' Levon Helm left us a powerful reminder of his gifts as inventive interpreter, as country proselytizer, as keeper of the flame.]
NICK DERISO: I can only guess, too, that all of this has provided some comfort in the wake of your dad’s passing.
AMY HELM: It’s been a very positive time, actually. And anything that has been difficult about it, I just couldn’t ask to be surrounded by better people — both musicians and other staff members at the Rambles. And we have a lot of fantastic help from friends. I’m surrounding by great people like Barbara O’Brien, Justin Guip, Brendan McDonough and Larry Campbell — who are all part of the Midnight Ramble family. I feel very positive about everything that’s happening right now, and I feel really honored to be in the position to try to carry on my father’s wishes and his legacy. Like he was to so many, he was really a musical hero of mine, obviously as well. So, I am very inspired and grateful to be in the place I am.