Grateful Web recently had a humbling opportunity to speak with Amy Helm, mandolinist, singer/songwriter, and bandleader of The Handsome Strangers. She also cofounded Midnight Ramble Band, whose roots began with her father the late and great Levon Helm, an Arkansan who met a gifted group of Canadian musicians and inevitably formed The Band in 1964. They would go on to write some of the finest lyrics in Rock, bringing a much deeper legitimacy to what had formerly (aside from perhaps The Beatles) been more superficial. They also integrated groundbreaking roots music styles that had never been part of rock music before.
What began as an assembly of Levon’s musical friends and family became a blissful tradition. These Rambles truly kept of the torch burning, carrying on the musical legacy of The Band’s early days when they recorded in a Barn in Upstate New York called Big Pink. Rambles continued in the Helm’s barn at his home in New York, and before long the band played limited engagements elsewhere. It was one of the finest and most embraced encores in the history of Rock. Levon’s untimely passing in 2012 was not the end of the Midnight Ramble Band. In conversation with Dylan Muhlberg, Amy spoke about an exciting upcoming collaboration with the Rex Foundation in San Francisco.
Ramble On Rose: A Benefit For The Rex Foundation, features The Midnight Ramble Band as headliners with support from The Bay Area’s own Wake The Dead, a Grateful Dead spirited tribute act with Celtic fusion roots at The Fillmore. The Midnight Ramble Band has always been Amy Helm (mandolin, vocals), the exceedingly talented Larry Campbell (multiple stringed instruments, vocals), Teresa Williams (vocals), Jim Weider (guitar), Denny McDermott (drums), Brian Mitchel (keys and accordion), and the Midnight Ramble Horns (Jay Collins, Reggie Pittman, Eric Lawrence.) Together they honor the music of The Band, Levon Helm, and the tunes that inspired Levon most deeply. As Amy shared in the interview, Levon was infatuated with roots music, and his hero was the late great Dr. Ralph Stanley.
Another key aspect to this Rex Foundation Benefit, (which is of course the Grateful Dead founded charity organization that has been selecting worthwhile beneficiaries since the mid 1980s), is the 40th anniversary of The Last Waltz, The Band’s final concert. It was brought together as The Band abruptly decided to stop touring after a successful summer comeback tour in 1976. Accounts vary, but as Levon would share in his autobiography This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of The Band (2000), it was Robertson who insisted that he was done touring, which in effect meant so did The Band. Regardless, they celebrated the occasion on Thanksgiving 1976 at Bill Graham’s Winterland Auditorium in San Francisco, California, the city where The Band played their very first gig together only six years earlier. Bill Graham masterminded a Thanksgiving Dinner for the thousands who attended; backed by a full orchestra who played classical waltzes as concert goers dined, a true production only Graham could have pulled off. The concert that followed was famously part of Martin Scorsese’s classic documentary.
During the interview with Amy, she admitted that her father was discontent with never receiving a dime from the performance or the subsequent film and album releases. Neither did any other members of The Band, besides Robertson who planned the entire affair with Scorsese with virtually no input from the others. Regardless, Amy was moved by how much the music in The Last Waltz still meant to people. “That unbelievable spread of guest musicians including Eric Clapton, Muddy Waters, Dr. John, Bob Dylan and so many others. It meant so much to all of the fans and The Band. The music continues to stand the test of time.” Amy and The Midnight Ramble band intend on honoring the music that made up The Last Waltz. The Ramble On Rose benefit will do justice to the spirit of the music of The Band, The Last Waltz will be included in that sentiment.
Additionally, Amy shared the beginnings of the Midnight Rambles at her families home in upstate New York. “The first one was kind of a rent party,” she admitted. Despite Helm’s undying fan base and respect from the music community, it was tough for singing drummers to market themselves in the world of 1980s rock without a full band to boot. Of course Levon was also a skilled multi-instrumentalist. Though The Band reunited successfully sans Robertson a number of times in the 1980s, including Ramble Band guitarist Jim Weider, Helm fell on hard times including near bankruptcy and substance abuse issues. The Midnight Ramble represented Levon taking back his musical gifts and sharing them with friends, family, and other strangers who adored him and The Band. Amy recalls Levon being especially moved when Mavis Staples (of The Staples Singers, featured in The Last Waltz) guested and sang in a Ramble. It really brought those vibes back.
The Rambles became so popular that the demand far exceeded the space in their private venue, so in turn they made subsequent festival and small venue appearances on mostly The Eastern seaboard. Levon sadly succumbed to throat cancer in 2012, after a near-decade long battle. It was an utterly crushing loss to world of American music, and even deeper for his vast group of friends and family. Amy turned to music as she always did to honor his memory and spirit. The Midnight Rambles continued with Levon in spirit and his full band to celebrate the life of the American music hero.
Amy subsequently formed a band called The Handsome Strangers. She plays bass and mandolin alongside guitarist Daniel Littleton and drummer David Berger. They continue to tour regularly. Her first solo album, Didn’t It Rain was released last year and featured an impressive assortment of players, including keyboardists Brian Mitchell, Billy Payne, John Medeski & Marco Benevento, guitarists Larry Campbell, Jim Weider & Chris Masterson, and an assortment of vocalists including Ramble Band member Theresa Williams. Amy reunites the Midnight Ramble Band often enough to keep the music alive and continually evolving. This Rex Foundation Benefit is indeed the most exciting gig for The Ramble Band and it’s fans this year. Amy said that special guests are in the works, though she did not mention any names.
The chat with Amy revealed a passionate veteran musician who has fully blossomed as a solo artist and seasoned accompanying player. She and The Midnight Ramble Band will put on one hell of a show at San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium this Saturday, December 3rd. Ramble on Rose will be a rare chance for West Coast fans to catch The Midnight Ramble Band and give to a great cause as the event is of course sponsored by The Rex Foundation. Head over to the Fillmore’s official site for tickets, as they are going quick!