February 2, 2010
"The artist’s job? To be a miracle worker: make the blind see, the dull feel, the dead to live."
— Ed Abbey
If what you were after was a top-shelf buffet brunch in the company of a gaggle of creative and enchanting storytellers, you would have been hard-pressed to find a more suitable environment than the ASCAP Filmmaker-Composer Breakfast held at Cisero’s midway through the recently-completed Sundance Film Festival.
It was an artist-rich environment. Sitting there next to my favorite magazine editor, Kristen Gould Case, and surrounded by the nucleus of the production team for the in-competition documentary, "Smash His Camera," introductions were made as platters-full of breakfast fare were somewhat-politely pounced upon.
Not being one with an overabundance of social skills when among strangers, I found it most welcome when, upon exchanging brief personal histories, the gentleman sitting directly across from me mentioned he lived in Woodstock and that he had recently attended — and here he leaned forward a bit with a glint in his eye — a "Midnight Ramble."
I was saved! Instantly, I knew fate had delivered me to a musical brother-in-arms. Leon Gast, the director of the film, flaunted an easygoing, somewhat animated conversational style that ushered me into a comfort zone before the strawberry on the end of my fork had time to fulfill its function.
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The Saturday night "Rambles" out at Levon Helm’s place up in the Catskills have become the stuff of legend among roots-music cognoscenti. Actually, a quite-roomy recording studio attached to his house, "The Barn," is known for its fireplace intimacy and the ecstatic, almost revival-like, energy among performers and pilgrims alike.
Levon, besides his longtime gig as drummer and signature vocalist for "The Band" during its heyday both with Bob Dylan and as a headlining act on its own, has always been awash in the cultural mannerisms of where he came of age: the Mississippi Delta.
To refer to him as merely "authentic" would be to just scratch the surface. All it takes is to hear him texture lines like "I pulled into Nazareth" from "The Weight" or "When I get off of this mountain" from "Up on Cripple Creek" and you find yourself transported to the Civil War south.
Talk turned to the virtuoso string-instrumentalist Larry Campbell who had blown through Park City as part of the Dylan band several years back and who currently occupies a prominent spot in Levon’s outfit. They were friends, Campbell and my breakfast mate.
As Leon spoke of the "Rambles" — he had attended more than a few — his face lit up, his eyes sparkled, and his gaze drifted off. Pure reverie settled in like Eliot’s fog over our end of the table as he and his muse began to levitate.
At about this moment, while attempting to pay at least nominal attention to the breaking of our fast, another vibe, more ethereal, entered the conversational mix. Almost seamlessly, we now found ourselves gushing over all things Miles Davis. Leon may have broached the subject, but I had taken the hook and firmly set it in the metaphorical corner of my mouth.
The thought was inescapable that I was being — how do they put it? — "punked." It had to be a setup. Someone had schooled this cat that if he were to salt the trail with a few crumbs of Levon and follow that up with a dollop or two of Miles, that I would begin babbling like the idiot I am. I looked around. No one in the room appeared to be paying us the slightest bit of attention. I had now become a paranoid idiot.
When it came time for Kristen and I to bolt on out the door and down to the Racquet Club for a screening of "Howl," Leon and I were both on our feet, regaling each other, perhaps a bit too loudly, with personal Miles Davis anecdotes. By then, he was tearing off sections of the paper tablecloth adequate to the exchange of contact info.
This was a good thing, or I wouldn’t have had an address with which to email congratulations after he walked off with the "U.S. Directing Award: Documentary" for "Smash His Camera" the following Saturday evening at the Film Festival awards ceremony down at the Eccles.
The brief time Leon and I spent within the auras of Levon and Miles reminded me of Wynton Marsalis’ comment on the tone Miles used for his "Birth of the Cool" LP. It was "soft but intense, like the best encounters," he said. "And sustained intensity," he added wryly, "equals ecstasy."
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.