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Music Review: Levon Helm – Ramble at the Ryman

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Often there is an excitement about live concert recordings, an electricity that studio gigs, for all their perfection, can never quite equal. Just listen to the audience reaction to the first few bars of “Rag Mama Rag” on Levon Helm’s new album, Ramble at the Ryman, and you can feel the thrill of expectation. It is the kind of response that has to affect a performance. It is the kind of audience reaction that brings out the best in a performer. Helm’s ramble on the fabled Ryman stage builds on that energy to revisit and reinvigorate some of the best of his classic work. This ramble is a joyful romp.

Ramble at the Ryman collects fifteen songs that range over the different stages of Helm’s career. There are songs from his days with The Band; there are songs from 2007′s Dirt Farmer. Variety is key to the set. From the opening number, Robbie Robertson’s “Ophelia,” which ends with a solid Dixieland jam to the final, rousing chorus of “The Weight” with its horns and harmonica, Helm and an impressive line-up of his friends who seem to have just casually dropped by to help out run a gamut of musical genres. There are low-down blues like “Baby Scratch My Back” and twanging country blues like Teresa Williams’ vocal on “Time Out For the Blues.” “Anna Lee” and “A Train Robbery” are modern takes on the traditional narrative folk ballad. Sheryl Crow joins Helm for a Cajun inspired “Evangeline” and then does a Carter Family country hymn, “No Depression in Heaven.” The traditional “Deep Elem Blues” has a real jazz feel and Chuck Berry’s “Back to Memphis” is an old time rocker. With guests like Crow and Buddy Miller, Sam Bush, Billy Bob Thornton and John Hiatt adding their voices to the mix, whether it is repertoire or performer, this is an album that doesn’t want for diversity.

While for those of us of a certain age, the homage to the days of The Band with tunes like “The Weight,” “Rag Mama Rag,” “Chest Fever” and “The Shape I’m In” may well be the highlights of the concert, this is not a golden oldies show. If Helm isn’t going the way of his erstwhile band mate Robertson on his recent album, How to Become a Clairvoyant, and recording brand new music, it is nice to see him putting his own stamp on these classics.

The band for this concert, which is also available on DVD, includes Larry Cambell on electric guitar and an assortment of other instruments, daughter Amy Helm on drums and mandolin, Teresa Williams on acoustic guitar, and Brian Mitchell on piano, organ and accordion. All join in on vocals. There is a swinging horn section made of Erik Lawrence and Jay Collins on saxophone, Stephen Bernstein on trumpet, and Clark Gayton on trombone and tuba. Tony Leone joins Helm on drums and Paul Ossola plays bass. Little Sammy Davis is featured on harmonica and does a bang up job rocking the blues on “Fannie Mae.”

After a bout with throat cancer and problems with his voice, it is truly exciting to see how well Levon Helm has recovered. He may not be quite the singer he was back in the day, but who is? The signature Southern grit that marked his vocals in the past with true intensity and emotional honesty still comes through loud and clear. And that is plenty good enough to make Ramble at the Ryman an album that should be on your iPod.

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About Jack Goodstein