Look at that, I’m already ahead of myself.
I always meant to make it to a show at Levon’s Barn in Woodstock, but alas, I waited too long and then the great Levon Helm was gone. Though I was pretty excited that the powers that be decided to continue booking shows into the Barn (and really good ones at that) I still avoided making the trek to Woodstock for years. Fortunately, on July 22nd, 2018 that all changed when I witnessed Midnight North, Twiddle, and the great Phil Lesh and his Family Band from a stunning VIP seat mere feet from the bands in the tiny, amazing concert venue.
Before I back up a little I will save you, dear reader, the suspense and confirm that yes, it was indeed this concert-aficionado’s dream-come-to-life and a night I will never, ever be able to forget. It was simply one of those shows that a guy like me is always chasing, and yet something he can never imagine until it happens. One of those increasingly rare nights of music that keeps me spending the bulk of my time and resources buying ticket after ticket, driving hours upon hours only to stand in a field hoping against hope for yet another night of unthinkable magic.
Unthinkably magical. That’s exactly what this night was.
As you can see, I just can’t help but to get ahead of myself. Rewinding a couple of weeks would find m’lady and I both receiving jambase emails announcing the show. We turned to each other and instantly agreed that this was our best chance to get to Levon’s Barn. The tickets went on sale the following Friday at 11am – I had to delay a twelve-hour drive to Moncton so I could be home to try for what was sure to be an impossible ticket – and at the allotted time Bam! Bam! m’lady and I both pulled pairs of tickets on our first try at 11:00:01.
We were flummoxed. We do this all the time and you never pull tickets on the first try, let alone a triple bill starring the bass player from the Grateful Dead in a room that only holds two hundred people, standing-room included.
And we both pulled pairs? Unthinkable.
We wrapped our heads around our luck and quickly pulled up seating charts so we could decide which pair to keep and which to throw back (tickets were non-transferable). Mine were in row F, second row from the back of the seven rows of folding chairs, directly facing the stage. The two seats that m’lady’s had in her cart gave us pause. They were seats in the front row, two chairs sitting alone just off the front corner of the stage, audience-right. Literally, just two seats on their own, none in front, beside or behind, with a little aisle between them and the rest of reserved seats. We were worried we might be stuck behind the drum kit or accidentally in a handicapped section or something, but we ultimately decided if they offer us seats numbered A1 and A2 we’d better grab them.
(Again a head’s up for the suspence-adverse: it turned out to be the greatest decision ever. Besides going to the show in the first place I suppose; or maybe even equal to. It was oh, so very amazing.)
With tickets secured we asked around about accommodations and were please as punch when our American friend Doug invited us to stay with him at his farmhouse in Hunter, New York, just forty minutes or so from Levon’s. We jumped in the car the night before the show and enjoyed a beautiful, six-hour, three-page long google maps “turn left and travel 1.3 miles”; “turn right and travel .6 miles”; “slight left to continue for 1.5 miles”; “turn right and travel 6 miles” journey through the lovely upstate countryside, arriving at Doug’s great drum-filled house at 8pm ready to take on all the hospitality he could throw at us, which was puh-lenty.
On show-day we woke up and relaxed as hard as we possibly could before heading out to the Barn in time for the gates to open at 4pm. When we arrived we joined a slow-moving line of cars weaving down Levon’s curvy, tree-lined country driveway until we met a couple of ladies with a hand-held device that had m’lady’s name listed on it. They gave us wristbands, congratulated us on our excellent seats, and waved us past the Barn and towards the very-nearby grassy parking area. The friendly parking dude waved us around. “You’re starting a new row. You’ll be the first ones out,” he said, and he was right. Our car was parked basically closest to the Barn, turned around and first in line facing the parking exit.
Well, that was pretty lucky.
I popped the back hatch and started into the solo cups, taking in the scene (there is no alcohol for sale at Levon’s Barn. Patrons are encouraged to bring their own and are allowed to walk in and out of the venue with open liquor). People of all sorts of freakiness were doing the same as me, and they all looked just as happy as I felt. The small, flat clearing was lined on one side by deep forest and on the other by a beautiful river (or is it a lake?), with ample waterfront just steps from the Barn.
“Nice place you got here, Levon,” I thought, and I was certainly right, if retroactively. sigh
After a good hour or two interacting with a slew of nice people it was time to head in. I was about to poke my head into the ground floor when m’lady instead directed us upstairs. As the fellow at the door checked our wristbands I said something about us having seats downstairs. He just pointed us towards a pair of chairs next to him. I looked at the chairs, confused. Then my eyes caught the gear set up on the floor just a few feet away and my mind started to reel. I thought we had climbed the stairs to the balcony but this was the venue!
My head turned around slowly, but not slowly enough. My brain just couldn’t take it in. After sitting down for just ten seconds or so I turned to m’lady.
“Let’s go back outside,” I suggested.
“Do you mean those are really our seats?!?!” I marvelled, once we were back at our car refilling my solo cup (m’lady was driving).
“Yeah, I think so,” she said with a smile.
I stared at the Barn, shaking my head. Upstairs in that little building was a small split-level room, half of which held the small “stage” area with about 100 seats set up in an L shape, and room for about 75 more standing up in the balcony, while a further 25 or so people could watch the show backwards from a riser behind the band.
And finally, up there on the front corner of the stage sat two solitary seats, straddling a side stage bench that was reserved for the artists.
“Wow,” was all I could say. “Let’s get back in there,” m’lady said back, seeing that my red solo cup was reset to overflowing.
First up was Midnight North, a young, five-piece alt-country band led by Phil Lesh’s son Grahame. They were really good, with a tight rhythm section and solid singing/guitar playing from both young Lesh and his female co-frontman Elliott Peck, whose dress nicely matched her teal guitar. The keyboard player was tucked off to the side and behind a pole (from my perspective) so he was harder to pay attention to, but all around a great band.
They had several sit-ins, one featuring the bass player from Twiddle and another featuring Twiddle’s guitar player Mihali which were both quite good but man, the biggest treat was when the guitar player from Phil’s band (the one that isn’t Grahame Lesh) sat in; he was super-fantastic. It was interesting to note that he played quite differently than he did later in the evening when he was alongside his boss Phil Lesh. Dude’s versatile and disciplined, that’s for sure.
During their set a videographer positioned himself temporarily alongside the pole near our seats, blocking our view. Once he had moved on (and the song had finished) the security guy who was sitting next to us leaned in.
“Was that guy blocking your view?” he asked.
“Well, yeah, a bit,” we answered, “But it’s no big deal.”
“Naw,” he said. “You guys pay a lot for these tickets and he shouldn’t be blocking your view. If he comes back and gets in your way let me know and I’ll tell him to move.”
Wow. Good security. The camera guy eventually returned to the pole near the end of Phil’s set, and because it was during the ultra-poignant Attics Of My Life I was forced to nudge my personal security detail and he got the guy out of there in a hurry. So if you see video of the song and it gets interrupted halfway through I’m sorry, but you had to be there.
And there I go getting ahead of myself again.
At set break I poked my head into the downstairs area and was met with the snack buffet that we sadly forgot to add to. Yes, patrons are encouraged to bring a snack to share with everyone else, and obviously plenty of people had done just that. Not willing to completely sit out of the festivities, I did my part by partaking as fully as I could in the eating side of the whole transaction.
It takes a village.
With a mittful of munchies I was soon back at the car again, where I spent the next half-hour babbling to my lot neighbours about how utterly unbelievable the venue was. Everyone agreed, and everyone understood my need to gush. “Yeah, the first time is pretty amazing,” someone said.
“Every time is pretty amazing!” someone else said. Nods and high fives all around.
Twiddle was up next. These are one of the new high-rising bands on the jam scene and this was my first time hearing them. Undeniably great players all around, they had several in the crowd singing along to every word; I was surprised how many rabid fans they seemed to have. Though I felt they sounded like a high-end lot band I really, really enjoyed it when they got Grahame and Elliott from Midnight North to join them for a run through of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
Of course I went straight to the car (via the snack table) again at the next setbreak, and as I got there I noticed a couple of people near the front of our car. No biggie, I opened the hatch and filled my cup.
Moments later a security guy came over and said to me, “I don’t want the girl in red back in the Barn tonight, alright?”
“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” I said, surprised.
“I thought I just saw her get out of your car,” he responded. “A girl dressed in red?”
“Uh-oh,” I thought. “Nope, nobody got out of my car,” is what I said.
“Okay, sorry,” he said, walking off. Well, that was easier than it could have been.
As I was finishing/refilling my beer I noticed that he had found his quarry just a dozen feet away and I overheard him very politely telling her that because she was dancing so extravagantly in the reserved seats with just a standing-only wristband despite repeated warnings she was not welcome back in the Barn but was free to listen to the final set from outside. He sounded like he was being pretty cool about it, and so was she.
(Later when we were back at our seats the security fellow came up to us and said he was sorry for thinking the lady in red had come out of our car. “No problem,” I piped in quickly, “I saw her standing there before but no, she wasn’t…”
“No need to explain sir, I’d just like to apologize.” Wow, nice security.
But there I am getting ahead again.)
I heard Phil warming up and raced back to the Barn, taking my seat just as he was finishing up his little soundcheck. Returning his big six-string bass to it’s stand, the greatest rock bass player of all time slowly started towards the band room, which forced him to pass directly in front of my seat. He paused right in front of me and looked down, and seeing a wide-eyed fifty-year-old kid with stars in his eyes, Phil Lesh smiled at me and said, “Howdy!”
“I can’t wait!” I gushed back at him. “I just can’t wait!”
Howdy. Imagine that. Phil Lesh met me. Wow. (I had met him once, backstage at the Ottawa Bluesfest, but this is the first time that he met me. It’s different when they talk to you first.)
And I couldn’t (wait, that is)! I was so excited that I spilled my whole beer. Luckily it all landed cleanly in my mouth so I ran out for more beer (and snacks) and was back in my seat in time for the entire headlining act to file between the crowd and our two little seats and onto the stage.
I tell you, seeing Phil up close is telling. The guy is notably frail, something that is pretty hard to see from thirty rows back. And it’s something that is virtually impossible to see once he picks up his bass and starts playing. When he starts to play it’s clear that Phil is a still a very strong man. The body is frail, but the music makes the man strong.
Phil remains the greatest bass player alive, that much was clear half-way through the opening song (Jack Straw). His mind is solid – it has to be to improvise the way he still does – and the stamina he has to be able to put in a long, fantastic and fully-engaged set of music like he did on this night is truly quite remarkable for a man on the cusp of his eightieth year.
Put simply, at the age of 78+ Phil Lesh can still do what nobody else in the world can do; play the bass like Phil Lesh.
Up next was a cover of Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone, followed by Cumberland Blues and another cover, I Shall Be Released, a clear tip of the hat to the man who built the Barn in the first place. And the whole time, as one guest artist after another from Twiddle and Midnight North sat in, all I could do was sit and stare at Phil Lesh, who stood there playing Grateful Dead songs just nine feet away from me.
I say I sat there staring but that would be a lie. Unlike 97% of the other people in the reserved seats I was standing up nearly the whole time, and with nobody behind me I stood reeking of impunity. There were a few times when I sat myself down, but in no time at all I would be swept to my feet again, so enthralled was I with…everything.
Eyes Of The World was especially fantastic, as was Uncle John’s Band. Then it was It Makes No Difference, then Help>Slip>Wharf Rat, which was unsurprisingly the show highlight. That is until the set closer Will The Circle Be Unbroken was followed by a stunning, holy version of the aforementioned Attics Of My Life.
And just imagine the joy in the room when, after three great sets of music from three pretty great bands in possibly the greatest, most unique venue in the country all us good, respectful, like-minded souls shared in the glory of Phil and his musical cohorts leading the whole crowd in an inevitable singalong of The Weight!
Well, it was all just too, too magical. As I said earlier, this was really just one of those shows that a person like me spends a lifetime in pursuit of. After hundreds and hundreds of shows, thousands of miles travelled and countless motel rooms and credit card bills a tiny few nights like this one float to the top, nights that can never be replaced, repeated, or forgotten.
The evening before I had asked our host Doug how it was that both m’lady and I had pulled tickets so easily, and so had he. As a guy who goes to shows at Levon’s all the time I thought he’d have some insight – maybe the tickets weren’t overly sought-after for some reason?
“No, this was unquestionably the hardest ticket of the season,” he explained. “But look at us, we’re concert professionals!”
“Well yeah, but even as ‘concert professionals’ we never pull tickets on the first try,” I insisted.
“I guess we’re concert professionals with good karma,” Doug answered.
I’ll take it.