Levon Helm

Ramble at the Ryman

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Levon Helm is one of rock & roll's most indefatigable road warriors, a guy who would seemingly be happy to play every single night, but he's also a cancer survivor who is over 70 years old, and spending his days in a tour bus doubtless doesn't hold the sort of appeal it once did. Since 2004, Helm has been striking a compromise between his eagerness to perform and the rigors of touring with a series of shows he calls The Midnight Ramble, held at the recording studio located on the grounds of his home in Woodstock, New York. The Ramble shows feature Helm and his band playing with a handful of friends and guest artists each week, and the intimate gigs have been popular enough that Helm has been playing occasional Ramble-style concerts in larger venues in the United States and Europe. Ramble at the Ryman, as its title suggests, was recorded during a show at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium (the former home of The Grand Ol' Opry) in the fall of 2008, where his band (led by multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell and vocalist and mandolinist Amy Helm) plays a handful of classic tunes from Helm's years with the Band and a couple numbers from his more recent solo efforts, while several guests step up to join the band throughout the evening, including Sheryl Crow, Buddy Miller, Sam Bush, John Hiatt, and Little Sammy Davis (the blues singer and harmonica player, not the late member of the Rat Pack). While Levon sings (and sings well) on several numbers, there are moments when one senses the revue-style show is partly in deference to his voice, which clearly isn't as strong or as resilient as it used to be. But Helm is still one of the most soulful drummers alive, and his work behind the kit is solid and joyous throughout, and his ensemble, capable of turning on a dime from spare and somber string band arrangements to rollicking New Orleans-style R&B, is superb, and does right by the half-dozen Band classics on the set list without slavishly copying the original arrangements. The guests are all clearly delighted to be on-stage with Levon and bring their A-game, and even when his voice strains to hit the higher notes, Helm still performs with an authority few living musicians can summon. Ramble at the Ryman may not be the same as hearing Levon Helm play for a few dozen guests at his studio -- or for a few thousand fans at one of America's most venerable venues -- but it captures a living legend on-stage proving he doesn't have to rest on his laurels to win applause, and this is a hell of a party coming from a guy well past retirement age.

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