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Published: 2011/05/24
by Brian Robbins

Levon Helm
Ramble At The Ryman

Vanguard Records

Ramble At The Ryman does a great job of nailing the vibe of a live show with the legendary Levon Helm and his band at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN. Beautifully recorded and mixed, Ramble At The Ryman captures everything – from the chop of Helm’s mando on “Rag Mama Rag” to the punch of the killer horn section on “Deep Elem Blues”.

Larry Campbell – the so-talented-he-should-be-arrested ambassador from the Planet of Stringed Things – assists Helm in leading the charge for the 9/17/08 Ryman performance. Campbell (who has served as MVP with everyone from Dylan to Phil Lesh) is blessed with both chops and taste, whether offering up aching, droning fiddle on “Anna Lee” or chunky twang on “Back To Memphis”. His extended guitar workout that introduces the Band staple “Chest Fever” is a true piece of work, paying homage to The Band’s keyboardist Garth Hudson while laying down some cascading passages that are nothing but beautifully-beaten Strat and tube amp stink. The tension builds as Campbell winds his way up the neck, then pauses (the Ryman takes a deep breath …) before plunging into the majestic twisted riff of “Chest Fever”. Talk about your drama …

Besides his role as musical director for the evening, Campbell welcomes a number of guests to the Ryman stage over the course of the album’s 15 cuts. Standouts include Little Sammy Davis (a regular fixture at Helm’s Midnight Rambles at his home in Woodstock, NY), who lays down some true blues on “Fannie Mae” and “Baby Scratch My Back”, backing up his real-thang vocals with some classic harp blowing. Sheryl Crow joins Helm to tell the tale of “Evangeline”, then takes the lead on the old Carter Family chestnut “No Depression In Heaven”. The highlight of the night’s numerous sit-ins is the teaming of Buddy Miller and Sam Bush on Miller’s “Wide River To Cross”. “Wide River”’s tender passion and gentle determination are a perfect fit for Helm and his band (Teresa Williams and Amy Helms provide lovely background vocals) and Bush seals the deal with beautiful mandolin doing a slow waltz with Campbell’s fiddle.

With a band as talented as Helm’s, the highlights are many and spread across the stage: keyboardist Brian Mitchell’s lead vocals on “The Shape I’m In” manage to honor the late Richard Manuel while having a little fun; Clark Gayton plays the world’s funkiest tuba solo on “Rag Mama Rag” (I shit you not); Teresa Williams belts it out like a combination of Wanda Jackson and Lou Ann Barton on “Time Out For The Blues”.

And then there’s Helm himself. The show is paced to give his voice a break every couple of songs while others take the mic (a throat cancer survivor, it’s an absolute miracle that Helm can speak, let alone sing), but even when he’s silent vocally, Helm is driving the beat from behind his drum kit as only he can or digging into his old mando. (Helm always plays down his mandolin talents, but in his hands the little bugger is transformed into a rhythm beast.) Fittingly, the album closes with “The Weight”, with John Hiatt sitting in. Doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard this song over the years; when Helm digs into the opening line – “I pulled into Nazareth/Was a’feelin’ ‘bout half-past dead …” – the hair’s going to stand right up on your arms.

Of all the neat moments on Ramble At The Ryman, I’ll admit that the one that tugged my heart the hardest during the initial listening had nothing to do with the music. After “Deep Elem Blues” ends in a torrent of crazy tumbling-down horns and drums, Larry Campbell asks the already-cheering crowd, “How about them horns?” The Ryman audience roars their approval and then Helm takes the mic: “Oh, we love you too, brother!” he yells to the crowd in his soulful, raspy voice. “And we’re glad to see ya – thank you for comin’ tonight.” There’s a pause and then Helm adds “We can’t do it without ya,” sounding chock full of fire and gumption while lugging every mile he’s ever known. It’ll break your heart and make you smile at the same time.

To get this far down the line, you might expect a performer to be so tempered by time and trials of fire that they’d be simply banging out the tunes, collecting the check, and going home.

Not Levon Helm. The man still puts every ounce of his being into his music.

Ramble At The Ryman is living proof.

Comments

There are 2 comments associated with this post

tj May 26, 2011, 16:42:10

I was at this show and it was everything in the review and more. Plant & Krauss also performed with the band that night (can’t remember the song they sat in on?). As did Steve Earle (just briefly – either chorus or a verse during The Weight). There is also a DVD out of this show!

tj May 28, 2011, 23:24:52

Just remembered – Steve Earle came out during Forever Young (not on the release).

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