One of the best memories Larry Campbell has of his days playing with Bob Dylan was meeting Paul Barrere and Billy Payne of Little Feat. When Dylan was paired with Phil Lesh and Friends, the two mainstays of Little Feat were playing in the Grateful Dead bassist’s evolving side project. Every night Campbell would venture out to watch and listen to the guitarist and keyboardist who defined Little Feat’s sound. To the versatile multi-instrumentalist who would himself find a place in Leah’s band, they were so off the cuff. He remembers it as constant invention.
When Campbell stepped onstage at the Beacon Theater to commemorate Little Feat’s 50th anniversary, it was just slightly longer than the night he got a phone call from a friend inviting him to see a double bill at Max’s Kansas City in New York City where he grew up.
“Who’s playing?” he asked and was told Little Feat and Bonnie Raitt. He didn’t recognize her name and had never seen Little Feat but quickly agreed to go. It was a fortuitous decision. They blew him away.
“I never saw anything like it,” he recalled trying to put together the math. “What’s that, forty-six years ago?”
Campbell was on the phone from his home in Woodstock. The day before he’d been in the studio producing the next album by friend and former Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman. Billy Payne plays keys on it. The couple had invited Payne to join them at their residency at the City Winery. Campbell says the commonality of his favorite records from the Seventies and Eighties is that they all feature Billy Payne. When it came time to record their debut album, Campbell and his wife Teresa Campbell called Payne.
Campbell’s own brush with history happened early in Little Feat’s set. On “Willin’,” Campbell’s fiddle had a sense of ruefulness wrapped around the song’s narrative, perhaps also reflecting that its creator Lowell George is no longer with us not to mention the late Little Feat drummer Richie Hayward. As the set moved into Lefty Frizzell’s “Long Black Veil,” and The Band’s “The Weight,” it was a joyous remembrance of Campbell’s former partner.
The anniversary celebration also brought the Midnight Ramble Band back together to open the show featuring Campbell, Williams, Amy Helm and the cast that was behind Levon Helm’s late life renaissance that led to three Grammy Awards.
They had only played two shows in recent memory and forgoed rehearsing due to time. “It felt like an old shoe,” Campbell assessed about the immediacy of the set adding that he really thought a lot about Levon that night.
These days the Midnight Ramble Band members are spread out. While Amy Helm and Jay Collins live nearby Campbell and Williams, they rarely are more likely to see each other on the road. Erik Lawrence and Steve Bernstein are in Nyack and Brian Mitchell and Tony Leone live in New York City. Jim Weider is out on the road leading The Weight and Byron Isaacs is touring with the Lumineers.
“Because we play so sporadically,” Campbell reflected of the occasion, “to play those songs makes you remember the genesis of why and how we started with that material.”
Recalling how the late Little Sammy Davis was the frontman for a blues band built around Helm, Campbell vividly remembers how Helm’s voice started strengthening from treatment for cancer. Helm began singing songs like “Take Me To The River” and “The War Is Over” and old Ray Charles songs. One night they convinced him to sing an old song he first sang with The Band, “Ophelia.” But the pivotal moment was the time he sang “The Weight.” That night Campbell felt they were off to the races with what was becoming the Midnight Ramble Band. It was a realization they could reach into a deep well but still bring something new.
The band’s set at the Beacon was full of the songs Helm once sang including Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” When Campbell delved into “Poor Old Dirt Farmer,” it was like their was a metaphysical presence powering him that made it truly transcendent.
“Come see us at Levon’s barn sometime,” he said waving as he and the Midnight Ramble Band left the stage, making way for the band that were heroes to him from the time he stepped foot into Max’s.
A week later he and Williams found themselves headlining their own show, this time in Northern Virginia. Onstage in the intimate Barns at Wolf Trap, Campbell was elated, calling it one of their top five places to play in the country.
Williams and Campbell are a seasoned vocal duo that has developed a distinctive road-tested sound built around his deep baritone and her soprano. It’s a blend that makes you want to turn them up on a car radio. The couple draws from the roots bible, built on lessons taught by the Carter Family and the Reverend Gary Davis but musically curious to flip genres like Campbell did as he picked his way through a bluegrass-tinged electrified version of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.”
Noting the strangeness of our times Campbell cut into “It Ain’t Gonna Be a Good Time Tonight” on the Fender bequeathed to him by Bob Dylan while Williams’ snarl matched the edginess of the material.
Here in this intimate room it felt like we were having a conversation as the couple reflected on their own personal history. All in all the events of a couple of weeks felt like they traced an entire lifetime.
Williams recalled her days growing up in rural West Tennessee near the great Carl Perkins as the couple sang his “Turn Around.” Each year they do a benefit for the foundation that focuses on childhood issues and still bears his name. Campbell went back in time recalling playing in Buddy Miller’s band in New York City during the 1980s. When they were looking for a lead singer, Miller said he knew someone from Texas and brought her to New York. Her name was Shawn Colvin. Shortly thereafter, Campbell met his future wife. Williams mentioned that the second album she made with her husband, was released thirty years to the day of their first date.
When she turned to bassist Jeff Hill who was on loan from Chris Robinson’s Brotherhood, she recalled the day the band was in Minneapolis and his wife went into labor. He made his way home to see the birth. In the blink of an eye, his daughter is now in preschool.
Campbell recounted the time he and Levon Helm received unfinished lyrics of Hank Williams songs from granddaughter Holly Williams. For Teresa Williams (no relation) who grew up in a family that listened to Hank Williams songs after dinner it all seemed hard to fathom : “Does it get any stranger singing a song Hank wrote with your husband?”
Before they launched into “Poor Old Dirt Farmer,” Campbell described the song as “Helm’s rise from the ashes.” Perhaps the couple remembered a show they did with Helm and Lucinda Williams just down the winding path on Wolf Trap Road. On a sweaty July night the couple stood on stage at the outdoor amphitheater the Filene Center. Tonight in an unpredictable early March it was unseasonably warm, hinting that Spring might soon prevail. And with a list of upcoming Wolf Trap shows on sale, summer wouldn’t be far behind.
The couple is writing for their third album but is preparing to do a live album over two nights at Helm’s barn. The show’s sound opened up to the rafters during “When I Start Loving You,” a song Campbell wrote with the great Stax Records songwriter William Bell. It was expansive and the duo’s vocals reached for the stars.
Come May shows in Europe beckon in what is turning out to be another busy year for the couple. But first a tradition calls when the Midnight Ramble Band heads to Jamaica for Little Feat’s annual island week.
The annual excursion brings together fans and bands alike in a resort setting. Each night there is music. Campbell and the Midnight Ramble Band will drop in on Little Feat and vice versa.
For Williams, she’d already got a head start singing “Dixie Chicken” with Amy Helm and friend Shelly King in the dressing room of the Beacon. Come the end of March, she and Helm will sit in with Little Feat where Bonnie Bramlett and Bonnie Raitt once sang on the original record.
After the show, Campbell, Williams and friends were comparing travel schedules and anticipating what nights they’d get to see Lucinda Williams and Anders Osborne.
Stevie Combs has spent fifteen years with Little Feat chronicling the band for its archives and running its website. He met fellow traveler Hilleary Bogley in Jamaica and now they are best friends. They saw Little Feat play three consecutive nights from Washington, D.C. to New York.
But the last week of March might be the best week of all.
Jamaica, say you will