8) Levon Helm- "The Weight" 6/14/08 Flag Day, Bonnaroo Manchester, TN
As twilight began to engulf the fields of B-Roo, I was sitting in the production trailer with uber-talented video director Sam Erikson simultaneously watching the filming of Iron & Wine, Zappa Plays Zappa, and Levon Helm and the Ramble on the Road. It was amazing to watch the editors fading and jump cutting live with such dexterity it boggled the senses. It was akin to watching a maestro conducting three orchestras at once. While gaining a new appreciation for the video arts and drinking a very tasty vodka soda copped from the backstage of the comedy tent, I settled in to watch Iron & Wine's set.
Sam Beam and crew were artfully augmenting the normal tempos of "Boy With A Coin" (reggae head shake) and my favorite song of 2007 "The Devil Never Sleeps" (downbeat hep cat cool), but my ears and eyes kept wandering over to the screens showing the 68 year old, cancer conquering, Dirt Farmer.
Levon could not wipe a mega watt grin off his warmly creased face. It was as if a John Deere tractor beam kept drawing me into the womb of Americana. I quickly thanked the mobile unit crew for their air conditioned hospitality and bee-lined it for "The Other Tent".
I snuggled into the photo pit with some of the other moths to the flame and immediately felt a collective energy greater than any other Bonnaroo tent show I've witnessed over the years. The vibe was just "ON". No other real way to explain it. After raising the stakes on "Ophelia" and shaking the heavens with "The Shape I'm In", the air ignited with static the minute the Ramble dropped "The Weight." Now I have seen this song performed by at least four dozen times over the last 30 plus years and even seen Levon do it a couple of times, but the venue, the time, the energy didn't even come close to this version. I ran into Levon backstage at Newport Folk on Sunday just after he did another version of the tune with Gillian & David and Jake Shimabkuro and I asked him about his Bonnaroo set and he said it was just a very "emotional version". I didn't want to pry any further but I told him that whatever it was it still made what little hair I have left stand at attention just thinking about it. This really was one of those times you just had to be there to believe it.
7) American Babies "Swimming at Night" 8/2/08 Newport Folk Festival
The third time the road manager for Damian and Stephen Manager called me to tell me they were crossing the Newport Bridge and they still couldn't figure out how to get off it, I just started laughing. The only solution was to send a very "understanding" Rhode Island State Trooper to find them and give them a escort to the festival grounds.
In the meantime there were approximately ten thousand people standing in a torrential down pour waiting for music. This wasn't just a little passing shower this was a true summer squall that ended up knocking out all the power on Aquidneck Island for over an hour. If it wasn't for the generators for the main stage the whole festival would have gone silent.
However we still needed a band to brave the elements and possible electrocution, so I jumped in a golf cart, tore to the Waterside stage and not so calmly asked the American Babies who were packing their van for the long trip back to Brooklyn after finishing their set to approx 100 people if they wanted to play the main stage. They asked how long they had to prepare; I told them to grab whatever gear they could carry and jump on the cart. As the amazing stage team quickly outfitted the Marley's gear to work for the Babies, the band stood backstage in a tight circle and quietly harmonized to the little ditty sung by Winthorp's pretentious friend Todd and his Ivy league cronies in Trading Places.
"Zeta Chi..Zeta Chi my friend...Neath the elms we sing our tones we're brothers to the end. Muffy in the bathroom stall, Margaret by the lake....Susan down in Ridgely hall, Constance on the make. Constance Frye...Coooonstance Frye....anytime you'd call... Constance would fulfill your needs....winter, spring...oooor faaaaaaall. 'that was great, that was really great. "And she stepped, ooohn the baaall."
After nailing the harmony and some last minute encouragement from Trey Anastasio who had just finished his own main stage set, the American Babies walked onto the biggest stage of their young careere exactly ten minutes after finishing on the small stage and simply killed IT in absolutely the worst conditions imaginable.
There are some bands that get breaks and never take advantage and then there are bands like these guys who absolutely soar. When Tom Hamilton sang the lyrics into the heart of the storm,
"Dare the Ocean to drag us away, because we're not afraid of a water grave"
while looking out on the raging sea and a multitude of water logged revelers was inspirational. As I've said many times before this band deserves every shot at the big time.