Monday, May 23, 2011
MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LEVON HELM - RAMBLE AT THE RYMAN
This is a live concert of the type of show Levon Helm has been putting on at his studio/performance space in Woodstock, New York since the turn of the century. Helm hosts, sings and plays with his band, a small crowd travels upstate and pays a pretty penny, and lots of famous guests have dropped by, from Emmylou to Phil Lesh to Norah Jones. It was to pay for disasters and downturns in Helm's career, including a fire that destroyed the first place, and then serious throat cancer. Helm miraculously got much of his voice back post-radiation, and by 2007 restarted his recording career too, with the Grammy-winning Dirt Farmer.
This disc comes from a 2008 show, but is just getting out now, no doubt because of all the added success and new projects that came his way. He was able to take the Ramble on the road, and when he hit Nashville, they did it up right with his party at the famous venue. Now that his comeback is complete and successful, you have to remember that it was not a done deal when this concert was made, and audiences were still wondering if Levon could give us the same thrill as he once did as a singer and drummer in The Band.
The opening blast answered, and gave everybody a taste of his famous vocals, Helm sounding older, rawer and frail, but still good, still himself. Ophelia, a Band favourite, is played with great vigour, in fact maybe even a better than most nights his old group tried it, since the horn section is full swing. They even rearrange the charts to emphasize the Dixieland flavour, and it is a great reminder of how powerful even the second-tier Band songs are.
Back To Memphis follows, and Band fans will know this version for sure, as the Chuck Berry cut was a common cover for the group. That's an important distinction for Helm of course. Much of his musical past, and certainly the most famous part, carries the name Robertson in the credits, such as Ophelia. His long-standing feud with The Band's guitarist revolves around the claim that Robertson took all the credits, and therefore gets all the money, when it was a more collaborative effort. So Levon is stuck at this point, trying to attract a crowd that wants to hear him sing songs that make his former colleague only richer. Memphis is a compromise, a Band song in a way, that is not as painful to perform.
Helm was determined to get back to the status he once had, and knew he couldn't just do a Band tribute show. His show was thought out, with a long middle section that celebrated the music of his area, his style, the heritage R'n'B, country and roots music of the South. He could handle the playing, and put together an ace band, but vocals were still a problem, and there was no way he'd survive a full show, once or night after night on tour. Joining the group full-time was vocalist Little Sammy Davis, described from stage as a real original blues man, but like most of you, I'm scratching my head to remember him. Other band members took turns, with Helm supplying drums, mandolin and sometimes duets. So it's really the music carrying things much of the night, rather than The Band legacy. As expected, more of the group numbers came out at the end of the show, including Rag Mama Rag, The Shape I'm In, and Chest Fever.
For this Ryman show, special guests were lined up for the inevitable DVD/live album, including Sheryl Crow, supplying a game, raw harmony on Evangeline ("from the Maritimes"), and digging out the Carter Family touchstone number, No Depression In Heaven. Nashville all-star players Buddy Miller and Sam Bush join and jam, and even pre-scandal Billy Bob Thornton guests. John Hiatt is the kicker, getting the plum co-vocal on The Weight.
It was a grand success for Helm. His perserverance and recovery from cancer was part of it, and so was the fact he was tapping into a new respect for roots music, not just The Band's career. But much credit has to go to his daughter Amy, who put her own climbing career with Ollabelle on hold to help her Dad get back on track. Also, Larry Campbell, an extremely talented musician, gave up his long-standing gig with Bob Dylan to pitch in as producer and band leader for helm, really running the music part of the show, when he could have been walking a much more lucrative path. These things alone are a testament to the respect Helm holds.
I think such a revue show is usually better seen than heard, but I can tell you I was singing along at a very loud volume in the privacy of my car. Since 2008, another Grammy has come Helm's way, for the 2009 album Electric Dirt, there's been tons of touring, more Midnight Rambles and a documentary called Ain't In It For My Health. Of all the comeback stories, it's one of the most surprising, and feels right.