Visitors park in Helm’s yard and enter next to a garage near the barn, where tables welcome potluck dishes for ticket-holders and the volunteer staff. Inside, wooden balconies overlook the performance space, and folding chairs line the floors. A lofted back area is standing room only, so close to the band the fans could high-five the tuba player. The front row could shake the singers’ hands. Guest artists, staff and family line the wooden radiator bench – SRO folks brush by them with “excuse me” and handshakes.
There’s no monitors or video screens, no $1,000 suits or producers, no stadium echo chambers. Many audience members are musicians themselves, from former roadies to office professionals with a big bass hobby. Five-hour drives aren’t uncommon.
“If you want to know what it’s like to understand the roots and development of American music, that’s what the band was doing here in Woodstock,” says Rebecca Carrington, whose ticket was a 43rd birthday present from her husband. “This is what all the American music gets back to.”
Helm is 71. Many of his Saturday night openers are half his age.
On an icy winter Saturday night Irishman Glen Hansard dropped by. He won international fame for his movie Once. He has an Oscar and two bands – the Swell Season and the Frames – that tour the world.
The two greatest concerts he’s ever seen, he says, are Helm’s Rambles.
On that night, Hansard introduced a song inspired by Helm, so new there wasn’t a title yet. Hansard gave the band chords, rattled off a melody, asked for a riff, and they were off, Hansard nodding chord changes as he sung. Every audience member could see and hear the musician’s communication—a real-time lesson in song creation. Later, Hansard said the band members referred to chords not as letters but numbers – the 40-year-old singer called it “old school.”
Asked later if he’d try that with any other musicians, Hansard said no.
“What I feel about this band, particularly, more than any other I’ve ever seen, is that the music … is eternal,” Hansard says. “And the spirit of the music, of the right groove, is eternal. And it’s very, very rare. It nigh on doesn’t exist—people that don’t stand in the way of the music.”