Preaching To The Choir: Live performances define us. I always wondered why.
By Sean McAlindin
Last summer, I went camping in Phoenicia with my six-year-old daughter Penelope and her mother.
We’d migrated here from Lake Tahoe after getting divorced and priced out of our housing during what I call the “Great Pandemic Migration.” It seemed that half of San Francisco moved to the Sierra Nevada, and I left behind my life for the last decade—a community of like-minded artists and nature lovers and a barn-burning bluegrass band called Lost Whiskey Engine that went on hiatus in March 2020 when the world shut down—and settled in with my parents in my hometown of Collinsville, CT.
Penelope’s mother moved them into a place in Hudson where her best childhood friend lived. While I knew this region was historically rich in music and culture, you could see the tumbleweeds rolling down Warren Street after dark, and it wasn’t exactly easy to meet new friends during COVID.
I was lucky enough to jam with some guys at Buddhist art dealer Alan Fernández’s Gallery 707 Hudson, and eventually got a gig playing piano on Friday nights at Isaan Thai Star. But I missed my old friends and the close-knit bandmates who’d made waves with me playing hippie festivals throughout Northern California. So, I strummed my banjo while Penelope explored the turbulent banks of Esopus Creek. As I plucked the lonely strings, somehow, the subtle magic of the mountains found its way into my soul.
Long before humans set foot in the Catskills, Hudson Valley or the Berkshires, the sound of water rushing down the mountainside mingled with wild birdsong and the whisper of the wind. Beneath the chaos and confusion of modern culture, nature’s original soundtrack still sings for us—if we’re only willing to listen.
The first recorded people to make music here were the Esopus, a native tribe who played water drums, deer hoof shakers and turtle shell rattles. By the end of the Civil War, the land was resettled by Europeans who passed on folk songs to suit the times. Many of these songs were later kept alive at utopian leftist Camp Woodland in Phoenicia, a place that put campers to work collecting and preserving thousands of folk songs.
Meanwhile, as the 19th-century Hudson River School of painters established the region as an international artistic destination, the extravagant mountain houses of the Victorian Era hosted concerts and dances for everyone from presidents to royalty.
The next boom in Upstate entertainment arrived with the Borscht Belt where, from the 1920s to the 1970s, more than a million predominantly Jewish New Yorkers came to visit a fantasy world of bungalow colonies and summer camps scattered throughout Ulster and Sullivan County. At upscale resorts such as Grossinger’s in Liberty—on which the hit movie Dirty Dancing was based—Duke Ellington played poolside with his 15-man orchestra, and Louis Armstrong and Dean Martin crooned in the ballroom.
In Woodstock, the Byrdcliffe Guild artist colony was founded at the turn of the 20th century and Maverick Concert Hall opened in 1916. But it was only a matter of time before rock ’n’ roll found its promised land. In 1963, Bob Dylan moved into a room above Café Espresso on Tinker Street where he wrote the songs on Another Side Of Bob Dylan and Bringing It All Back Home. Scores of musicians followed, and Woodstock became the lively folk-rock haven it remains today.
Dylan was practically a local by the summer of 1967 when he retreated to a humble, two-bedroom house tucked away in the forests of Saugerties. Far from the roar of excess and fame, there in the underground garage of “Big Pink” (the now infamous pink house once rented by Rick Danko), Dylan and The Band pioneered the art of home-recording with the legendary Basement Tapes. This is where our musical journey begins.
It’s a sunny day in May when I pick up Penelope from school and drive across Rip Van Winkle Bridge toward the Catskills in search of Big Pink. Along the way, we stop by Martin Keith’s guitar workshop on Stoll Road. His rustic house rests in a dense forest atop a sloping bluestone terrace. Penelope disappears upstairs with his daughter as we sit down to talk shop.
“I tried to leave a bunch of times, but always found a reason to stay,” Keith says. “Woodstock’s changed a lot. It seemed like most of Manhattan moved here to the escape pod during the pandemic. It’s been an adjustment for a lot of local folks like me, but it’s also brought a lot of artists, creatives and musicians who are doing cool stuff.”
The son of melodic banjoist Bill Keith, Martin grew up around the Woodstock music legend. After college, he apprenticed at Joe Veillette’s guitar shop where he built instruments for the likes of Lauryn Hill, Eddie Van Halen and Dave Matthews.
“It’s one of those paradoxical things,” he says. “Growing up here, I thought a lot of the Woodstock mythos was exaggerated. But I think it’s attracted enough people that it sort of made itself true, you know? Because Woodstock was this iconic music town and people have this idea of it that way, they move here and they kind of turn that into a reality.”
As we leave the Keiths and wind our way down the road, I’m struck by the infinite beauty of this place, its ever-shifting light and endless mountain vistas. We pass a series of “No Trespassing” signs and round the corner on a bumpy dirt road into a hidden meadow.
Pink appears before us. She’s nothing spectacular, but Overlook Mountain stands gallantly in the distance, and I can easily see why Dylan and The Band hid out here at the end of a lonely dirt road. I sit on a bench alongside the driveway, the wind sings through the pines, and I drift back to the Summer of Love.
Pink, as she’s known, is now a vacation rental owned by Don LaSala, a longtime Woodstock resident, musician and audio engineer. He says artists and music lovers from around the world come to the house to jam with friends, listen to records, paint and type on the typewriter just as Dylan would. “We let the fans have it,” LaSala says. “They become part of its history.”
The house is decorated much the same way it was in 1967 when The Band’s drummer Levon Helm slept in the attic and they wrote, recorded and dreamed as a true band of brothers, lost together in a creative wilderness. “There’s a mystical side to it,” he says. “Nature is very strong here. It’s as if the band left and could come back any time.”
As we head home with the sun setting, I tune into WDST 100.1. Radio Woodstock launched in 1980 and has evolved into a contemporary roots rock station that pays homage to the classic artists while mixing in new ones that reflect the vision, creativity and social consciousness of the times we’re in.
Former station manager Richard Fusco moved to Woodstock in spring 1969, but he didn’t go to the famous festival.
“There was a lot going on in town that weekend, too,” he says.
In 1970, Fusco helped build Joyous Lake, a premiere live music venue of the time. Any night of the week, legendary artists including Muddy Waters, Joe Cocker or Van Morrison could wander in beside you, have a drink and sit in on a couple of songs.
“The sense of community in the ’70s was part of the hippie mentality,” Fusco says. “Music is part of life. Supporting musicians is what everybody does. If you needed a place to stay, they’d give you a place to stay. If you needed a shirt, we’d give you a shirt. The creative energy, the Woodstock spirit, is still here. Though the outside has changed a bit, the essence of what Woodstock means is still as strong as it ever was. It’s like an energy vortex that’s not going anywhere.”
A couple of weeks later, I almost miss the turn into Levon Helm Studios, but when I see a bunch of cars turning onto an unmarked dirt road, I follow. Through the woods, the barn appears before me, a tapestry of the 2010 Grammy-winning album Electric Dirt pinned to its tall, grey timbers. Jammy rock music plays outside and there are more than a few tie-dye shirts in the parking lot.
I wander down to the banks of a three-acre pond that Levon built himself. As I sit in a wooden rocking chair and gaze into the reflection of the forest in the water, Overlook Mountain once again hangs in the distance. I wonder what Levon would think about when he did much the same in his day. There’s something about being on the land of a rock legend that gets your imagination going.
The show’s about to begin as I walk up the sturdy stone steps into the barn. Inside, it smells of sawdust and inspiration, and the stage is set warmly in the center of the room. Before the concert begins, Levon’s presented with a lifetime achievement Grammy, accepted on his behalf by his daughter, Amy, and his wife, Sandy.
The family moved around a lot when she was a kid, but Amy always considered Woodstock to be home. Her mother, singer and actress Libby Titus, was born here in 1946.
“My early memories of Woodstock are of the land,” Helm tells me. “I remember the smell of it and the bluestone walls and the trees and the quiet, and that’s kind of the first sound I remember. I think that’s why I need to still be here, in this place, to try to do the best work I can do.”
In the early 2000s, when Levon was out of money and had lost his singing voice to throat cancer, he began hosting concerts here. He called them “Midnight Rambles” and friends including Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello and Dr. John would sit in. It was a way to save his house and put some money in the pockets of local musicians.
“He was really into building community,” Helm says. “That was his drive. My dad wasn’t into celebrity or legacy. He was a real union man, so to speak.”
Back at the concert, Twisted Pine, an eclectic Boston quartet, light up the stage with an energetic set. Then Amy’s band, The Helm Family Midnight Ramble, comes on. The ten-person band features Woodstock’s Connor Kennedy, a guitarist who reminds me of Robbie Robertson with his confident, economical playing and heartfelt singing. Kennedy attended his first Ramble at 14 and for years he earned free admittance by taking out the trash. He quickly gained local respect for his musicianship and creative tenacity, and soon found himself on tour with Donald Fagen of Steely Dan.
“The first time I went to the Ramble it changed my life immediately,” he tells me. “I’d sit behind Levon and watch him play drums. It was basically like going into another world of music.”
Amy’s teenage son, Lavon (Lee) Collins, sits in on drums and steals the show with a rousing rendition of “Ain’t Got No Home” by Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Led by Amy, the group takes us through The Band’s classic repertoire and by the end of the night there are 15 musicians on stage joined together in a moving rendition of “The Weight.”
After Levon died in 2012, Amy revived this space and started hosting concerts again with the help of a younger generation of musicians including Kennedy and drummer Lee Falco. “That’s what inspired and encouraged me to keep putting one foot in front of the other trying to build after he went away,” she says. “There’s this strong multi-generational connection of players. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s really been a gift to me in my life.” As far as the room goes, “It’s just filled with all the right muses and energies that make people sing and play in a way that feels really good for musicians and music lovers,” she says. “And it sounds fucking great, too.”
It’s a beautiful spring evening as I follow the Farmington River upstream from Collinsville into the dense forests of the Berkshires. The road slowly deteriorates as I drive deeper into the woods. When I reach what seems like the last driveway, The Dream Away Lodge appears magically before me.
Rumored to have been a brothel and speakeasy during the Great Depression, this 200-year-old Becket, MA farmhouse at the edge of October Mountain State Forest was bought by Mamma Maria Frasca and her three musical daughters in 1947. It became an unconventional roadhouse where the Berkshire Folk Society hosted its original hootenanny jam sessions in the 1950s. Legends, including Frank Sinatra, are rumored to have visited, and Dylan, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie and Allen Ginsberg made a memorable stop in 1975 that found its way into Dylan’s epic film Renaldo And Clara.
After strolling the peaceful grounds and chatting up some strangers by a campfire, I sit down to a lovely meal by guest chef Brian Alberg of The Break Room in North Adams: Tuna poke and wakame salad with carrot-tamari vinaigrette followed by barbecued chicken with pico de gallo.
I have a drink and talk to former owner of The Dream Away Lodge Daniel Osman who purchased the property from the Frascas in the ’90s. Soon, Moon Radio begins to weave their ethereal sounds in the cozy side room. There’s no cover charge, but Osman periodically passes around a bucket to collect payment for the band.
Andy McDowell’s one of four new owners who bought The Dream Away Lodge in 2022 and they’ve recently reopened the space after three years. His wife, Courtney, and partners Sheryl Victor Levy and Scott Levy are also owners.
“It’s an intimate room, so the musicians tend to relax,” McDowell says. “It can hold 50, but if there’s only 10, it still feels good. There are people who wouldn’t play such a small room for small money; but they’ll do it here.”
After the show, I talk with the band, and it feels like I’m surrounded by old friends. All in all, it’s honestly one of the best nights of dinner and music I’ve had in my life. Like many a visitor before me, I find myself asking the next morning, “Was that all a dream?”
A few days later, on a perfect Memorial Day weekend, I head down Warren Street to an 1880s industrial factory by the banks of the Hudson River. I’m going to 24-HOUR DRONE at Basilica Hudson. The ultimate club night for introverts, this immersive, experimental sound-as-art performance will be like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.
Basilica Hudson was founded in 2010 by musician Melissa Auf der Maur and her husband, filmmaker Tony Stone, to host genre-pushing music festivals, film screenings, public installations and other unique concert events. Most of its programs are free or sliding scale. Raised in Montréal by an artistic and socialist community, Auf der Maur has always seen music and social activism as two sides of the same coin. She and Stone recently took out a construction loan to winterize the factory and outfit it with solar panels and other green technology to achieve net zero energy impact.
“The history of art and environmentalism here is intertwined,” says Auf der Maur. “Artists can save the world on an emotional level. We let you see what the system is destroying because we preserve the beauty.”
As I approach the glowing building, the ragged edges of sound pour through the ancient bricks. Under the soaring, raftered ceilings of the main room, hundreds of people lay down on mats and sleeping bags surrounding a rug in the center of the room. A man in a black loincloth writhes and crawls around the makeshift stage as Haela Ravenna Hunt-Hendrix of noise rock group Liturgy pounds out wild distortion from an electric guitar. We’re already nine hours into the drone and it’s only just beginning.
The next artist to take the stage is Laura Ortman. Dressed in a sparkling top, she builds a tempestuous tapestry of sound by looping her violin through a series of pedals. Then comes Wolf Eyes, a Michigan duo who combine digital effects with a range of homemade instruments to create an unearthly atmosphere that bends and shifts outside the grasp of time.
At midnight, Raven Chacon of Fort Defiance on the Navajo Nation begins his three-hour endurance set. As I lay on my mat, snuggled up next to complete strangers, he takes me on an emotionally challenging inner voyage. I must step outside just as he reaches the climax at 3am.
I settle back in and finally drift to sleep for a few hours as C. Lavender welcomes the sunrise with his glorious sound bowls. Morning light streams in through the 20-foot windows when FUJI|||||||||||TA begins to share in the unending void of noise with hand-pumped organ pipes and ASMR-like vocal renderings.
When I leave the event, it’s as if my ears have been retuned. I hear everything more clearly. The vibrations throughout the night, though at times uncomfortable, have rewired my body and mind, and I’m not sure I’ll ever listen to music the same way again.
It’s Thursday afternoon and I’m in the auditorium at my daughter’s school.
Penelope is performing front and center with Harmony Project Hudson, an afterschool program that provides students with free instruments and professional training. She sings a couple of adorable songs and plays “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on the recorder.
The program was started by Anneice Cousin who also founded Beautiful Racket, an organization committed to eliminating barriers that have historically prevented Black and Brown people from accessing the power of self-expression.
It’s one of many amazing music programs here. Back in Woodstock, Jason Bowman created Rock Academy in 2013 after moving here from Manhattan’s Chinatown. Folk legend John Sebastian and John Ashton of The Psychedelic Furs are regular guest teachers.
“Kids can go online and learn how to play a song,” Bowman tells me. “You don’t teach the subject. You teach your love of the subject. That’s what the kids pick up on. We’re raising the next generation.”
Local programs like these are an oasis for children to call home and belong to an artistic community in their increasingly hectic lives. They’re a reflection of the beautiful world we hope to create together.
“It gives so many kids structure and focus,” says Amy Helm. “It’s something to count on and grow toward.”
As I watch Penelope leave the stage, a big smile glowing on her face, I have a feeling the future is in good hands after all. I’m not sure what lies ahead for us in this corner of the planet on our musical journey, but I know I’m in the right place. And, if I only follow the sound, some sort of magic is never far away.