Levon Helm's Ramble at The Ryman, 4/21/10



  • Photo: Jack Silverman
If you need proof that getting old doesn't have to suck, Levon Helm is Exhibit A. The iconic Band drummer, who's just a month shy of his 70th birthday, brought his Ramble to The Ryman Wednesday night, and the sinewy septuagenarian rocked the Mother Church like a guy a third his age, unleashing three solid hours of roadhouse rock and soul that was a roots lover's wet dream.

The evening began with a short set by the Dave Rawlings Machine, featuring Rawlings’ eternal cohort Gillian Welch along with Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, Morgan Jahnig and Willie Watson. Though he’s used to letting Welch have the limelight, Rawlings is a formidable frontman in his own right, and his guitar playing is remarkable and entrancing — he’s one of the few guitarists out there who’s managed to take the foundations of old-school folk and country and come up with a sound that’s truly original. Highlights of the set included “Ruby,” “It’s Too Easy” and a great version of Old Crow’s “I Hear Them All” that lead into several verses of “This Land Is Your Land” — which despite (or perhaps because of) its ubiquity, was suprisingly affecting.

The Dave Rawlings Machine
  • Photo: Jack Silverman
  • The Dave Rawlings Machine
After a short break, Helm & Co. took the stage and ripped into the Band classic “The Shape I'm In.” Immediately it was clear the iconic drummer hadn't lost a step as he stirred up that rickety funk groove, limbs flying like a marionette at the hands of a slightly tipsy puppeteer. The first five or so songs featured vocal turns by various band members, among them longtime Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell and Helm's daughter Amy, a hellacious blues belter. In fact, audience members were getting antsy, wondering if Helm — who battled throat cancer and couldn't sing or hardly talk for nearly a decade — might be having vocal problems again.

All doubts vanished when he ripped into Ray Charles' classic soul shouter “I Want to Know”: The first few lines of that familiar twangy rasp, one of the most distinctive and beloved voices in the history of popular music, brought one of the night's biggest ovations. It wasn't long before the cavalcade of stars — including Sam Bush, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Buddy Miller, David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Jeff Hanna — began parading onto the stage. Standouts included Hanna's stirring version of Dylan's “You Ain't Goin Nowhere,” Emmylou dueting with Helm on “Evangeline” (with Helm on mandolin) and a rousing take on the Grateful Dead's “Tennessee Jed,” a song whose backwoods charm seems tailor-made for Helm, the only member of the Band who was actually from the South (or this country, for that matter). Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman came out to bang a bass drum on a rowdy version of the Crescent City classic “All on a Mardi Gras Day,” featuring a parade to the front of the stage by the five-piece horn section, not to mention exceptional singing and piano courtesy of Brian Mitchell, who was superb all night. “It Makes No Difference” was particularly poignant, as much for the palpable absence of the late Rick Danko’s vocals as for the beauty of the performance itself.

  • Photo: Jack Silverman
But the highlight of the night was undoubtedly the Band staple “Chest Fever.” How ironic is it that perhaps the greatest song by a group known for fabulous, evocative lyrics has some of the most absurdly ridiculous and nonsensical words ever written? “I know she’s a tracker / Any scarlet would back her”? Really? “ ‘She’s stoned,’ said the Swede / And the moon calf agreed”? Are you putting us on? Yet the song’s irresistible stoned soul groove elicited more hoots and hollers than Jenna Jameson at a U.S. air base in Baghdad. It didn’t hurt that guitarist Campbell reinterpreted Band organist Garth Hudson’s legendary intro (aka “The Genetic Method”) in a three-minute six-string frenzy that made the song’s inevitable arrival all the more tantalizing.

The gangs all here
  • Photo: Jack Silverman
  • The gang's all here
The evening ended with all of the guests onstage trading verses on “The Weight,” then a chill-inducing encore of “I Shall Be Released” with Levon taking the first verse and hitting those haunting high notes with a level of emotion that could only have come from a 50-year rock veteran who’s seen a couple of his bandmates meet untimely and heartbreaking demises.

The Spin had only a couple of complaints. First, what was up with the crowd? While they clearly were loving every minute and cheering enthusiastically, they barely stood up all night. At Levon’s last Ramble at the Ryman in 2008, which was filmed and aired on PBS, folks were on their feet for half the show and it felt like a tent revival. And second, seeing a Levon Helm concert without “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” feels kind of like going to the Louvre and missing the Mona Lisa. Perhaps he’s just over it — a quick scan over set lists on Helm’s website seems to indicate he never does it anymore — but no Band song is more closely associated with him, and we can only imagine the roar that would have greeted “Virgil Caine is my name / And I served on the Danville train.”

Oh well. These are extremely minor grievances about one of the more memorable concerts in recent memory (or at least since the 2008 Ramble at The Ryman). And the best part of the evening was witnessing how much fun Helm was having. It’s rare to see performers enjoy themselves so much, particularly in this day of calculated pop performances and studied hipster detachment. For three solid hours, Helm was the proverbial pig in shit — an image we’re sure is familiar to the pride and joy of Turkey Scratch, Ark.

The beginning of "Chest Fever" with guitar intro. If you don't like guitar solos, start at 2:50 for the evening's most spine-tingling moment.

"Tennessee Jed" — Refer to 0:32 to hear Levon give the proper pronunciation of "Tennessee."

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