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Book Review: The Levon Helm Midnight Ramble by Paul LaRaia

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Levon Helm is a musician's musician. The sheer joy of making music is evident in every note he sings and every beat he plays, and his voice, despite the ravages of time, is as honest and true — and about as fancy — as good, fertile dirt.

Long disillusioned by the music business, virtually sidelined for a number of years by throat cancer, Helm, a founding member of The Band, has recently released a pair of critically-acclaimed solo outings, 2007's Dirt Farmer and the follow-up, Electric Dirt, released in 2009.

He also keeps busy with his Midnight Rambles, intimate, revue-style shows he hosts on a weekly basis in his Woodstock barn, occasionally packing up and taking the show on the road.

The idea behind the Rambles is two-fold – exploring American music by pairing performers who've never played together before, and offering virtually unheard-of intimacy to those lucky enough to attend.

Photographer Paul Larai has been documenting Rambles for four years, and his photographs, combined with quotes from many of the artists involved, bring Helm's Midnight Rambles to loving life with his new book, a moving tribute to one of the world's greatest drummers, a man whose very soul exudes music.

Indeed, there are remarkable photographs here, from up-close portraits of Levon and famous friends in action to wider shots that capture the feel of the casual, relaxed atmosphere exquisitely. It’s about as close as one can get to being there, without (sadly) the audio.

What elevates the book above a mere collection of pictures, though, are the heartfelt words from the artists involved. There isn’t a single quote that sounds ‘phoned in,’ as though an agent or publicist wrote words for the artist’s approval. Instead, we get musicians sharing their thoughts and impressions of Levon and the process of making music.

And what a list of friends it is – far too long to reproduce here, but Levon’s guest list is a virtual who’s who of roots royalty, from bluegrass queen Alison Krauss (with current touring partner and a reasonably well-known figure in his own right, Robert Plant) to elder statesmen Allen Toussaint and Dr. John. Helm’s daughter, Amy, and her band Ollabelle are prominently featured, as is Larry Campbell, multi-instrumentalist and a fixture in Helm’s musical world.

A warm and wonderful celebration of a genuinely remarkable man and musician, The Levon Helm Midnight Ramble will do just fine for those who can’t attend a show. Put on one of Levon’s “Dirt” outings (either one – they’re both superb!) while reading and enjoy…!

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