Levon Helm: “Ramble at the Ryman”
Lots to like about Levon Helm’s celebratory new live recording– actually, available as either an album or a concert DVD– but let’s start with the title itself. Just a few years ago Helm was recovering from major throat surgery, and it seemed doubtful that he’s ever be able to open his mouth and sing again. And what a loss that would have been: Helm is duly credited as one of rock’s most distinctive and soulful drummers but he is perhaps underappreciated as one of its very best singers, the man whose warmly craggy, rustic Arkansas voice gave many of The Band’s all-time classics their heart and their weight. Thank God he got his voice back– and now, has released a record with the word “ramble” in the title. A cheeky bit of triumphalism, perhaps, though I get the feeling that Helm’s attitude is mostly one of humble thankfulness.
Or at least, that’s how this album plays out. The title is actually not a reference to the fact that the man can still talk and sing– and quite well, actually– but rather is a nod to the spirited concerts he holds in his Woodstock studio, and, every now and again, uproots and shares with other parts of the country. This set, of course, was recorded in Nashville’s own holy temple of American roots music. The Ryman once housed the Grand Ol’ Opry. I once saw Tom Waits perform there, a carnival barker bathed in stained glass refraction; it was a thing to behold. And this Levon Helm show more than lives up to the sacredness of its famous stage. The weight of history is very much a part of these performances, though it’s nowhere near as weighty or sober-minded as all of that would suggest. It’s more like the sound of a living legend who doesn’t care much to be bogged down by that title or the feelings of self-importance it might denote; he’s rather cut loose and have a good time, and Ramble at the Ryman is certainly a hoot and a holler. More directly: It’s the party album of the year.
They are structured as revues, these Rambles– think of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder era, perhaps– and this set in particular is a star-studded affair, Helm anchoring his large touring band (complete with horns, and led by Bob’s own bandleader, Larry Campbell) and augmented by guest performers including Buddy Miller, Sheryl Crow, John Hiatt, and others. But to call them guest performers almost gives the wrong impression. They aren’t really featured soloists, though many of them do take solo vocal turns; rather, they blend in quite naturally to the organic give-and-take of these performances, trading off vocal duties just like members of the band. Their celebrity is not the selling point here. This disc is all about hearing them humbly and respectfully share the stage with a true master– someone they all clearly hold in high regard, and who is really in terrific voice here.
The record actually makes a nice capstone to the latter-day renaissance Helm has been enjoying; his two recent solo albums, Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt, both won critical acclaim and even Grammys, and Ramble is very much in the same spirit, a collection of folksy American roots songs that blend originals and covers (in this case, there are some Dirt Farmer songs and also some Band staples). Helm gives a joyfully ramshackle, carefree take on The Band’s “Ophelia” for the album opener before dipping into a Chuck Berry tune, “Back to Memphis,” here done as a sort of horn-drenched R&B. His voice is too weak to carry the Dirt Farmer ballad “Anna Lee” on his own, but the choral effect– featuring support from female band members– is quite lovely, and I actually prefer the warmth of this version to the studio rendition. There is a slightly slowed-down “Rag Mama Rag” that is sort of a slinky jam, and an album highlight. The closing trifecta finds the band tearing the roof off of “The Shape I’m In,” “Chest Fever,” and, most of all, an electrifying sing-along version of “The Weight.”
Along the way, Buddy Miller gets to do a song he wrote with wife Julie and included on his own fine album United Universal House of Prayer; it’s called “Wide River to Cross,” and, again, I prefer the looser live version to its studio incarnation, I think. Sheryl Crow gets to do a very convincing, down-home folksy take on a Carter Family song (“No Depression in Heaven”), and blues man Little Sammy Davis sings and plays harmonica on a couple of enjoyable blues jams.
But again, the presence of different singers here doesn’t make this feel like some kind of stilted celebrity tribute concert; it’s just the sound of great musicians cutting loose on some great songs, celebrating the material and savoring one another’s company. The performances are spirited, the arrangements (by Campbell) unimpeachable; the upbeat numbers are decked out in full, brassy regalia, the quieter numbers given space to be warm and intimate. My only request: That this not be a glorious parting shot from Helm, but rather just one more entry in a late-career canon that will continue to grow and grow.