by The Spin
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.
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.
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.