We’re reminded again on Ramble at the Ryman, a record both timeless and new, that Levon Helm was the loamy voiced, rail-jumping rhythmic center point of the Band, the yearning storyteller and gritty soul. Their records were drawn from continuity, bringing in dizzyingly diverse, age-old influences and performed in a chorus as if by brothers. That has always made a treasure hunt out of selecting any individual triumph.
Not here. Recorded in the period just after Helm’s acclaimed 2007 return following a dramatic health scare, this stirring live document (due Tuesday on Dirt Farmer/Vanguard Records) is both a showcase and an important reminder: The Band’s principal songwriting credits may have gone to guitarist Robbie Robertson, but they were then — and are here, on Ramble at the Ryman — often completely inhabited by Helm’s carnal Arkansas drawl. Even after that bout with throat cancer, his singing remains a wonder of ribald bewilderment, old-time religion and chaotic promise.
Now, this isn’t Helm’s valedictory. Included also is trio of tracks from the then-new Grammy-winning effort for best traditional folk album Dirt Farmer, including “Wide River to Cross,” “Anna Lee” and “A Train Robbery.” Appearing with a raucous group fronted by multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell (Bob Dylan, Lyle Lovett, Solomon Burke), Helm also stirred in songs that matched both in tone and texture — songs that helped form the foundation of the Band’s later triumphs. There’s “Back To Memphis,” the title track of a 1967 Chuck Berry release; “Fannie May,” the No. 1 1960 R&B hit for Buster Brown; “Baby Scratch My Back,” a No. 1 R&B hit for Slim Harpo in ’67; the Carter Family’s classic “No Depression in Heaven”; “Deep Elem Blues,” a 1920s-era traditional song later covered by Jerry Lee Lewis and the Grateful Dead; and Lefty Frizzell’s “Time Out for the Blues.”
Still, the highlights of the recording remain Helm’s rollicking new takes on signature tunes from his tenure in the Band. He opened this show with an almost anarchic “Ophelia,” originally from 1975′s Northern Lights-Southern Cross and now a shambling, horn-driven hoot. Helm’s update of “Evangeline,” memorably performed with Emmylou Harris on the Band’s 1978 release The Last Waltz, includes a new guest turn by Sheryl Crow — who joins in a high lonesome vocal accompaniment with Helm. “Rag Mama Rag,” originally on 1969′s The Band and always a great showcase for Helm’s deep South honk, has slowed by a half step, sounding slinkier and in no small way more dangerous.
Ramble at the Ryman also features two songs closely associated with Helm’s former Bandmates, beginning with keyboardist Brian Mitchell filling in at the mic during 1970′s “The Shape I’m In” for the late Richard Manuel. Later, on “Chest Fever,” from the Band’s debut recording, Garth Hudson’s iconic “Genetic Method” organ intro is smartly reimagined as a Campbell guitar lick. (I’m not sure anyone could have approximated the heady mixture of soul and dementia that Hudson always brought to this track at the keyboards, anyway.) Finally, there’s the 1968 Band classic “The Weight,” featuring one of Levon’s most memorable shared vocals, this time with John Haitt taking over Rick Danko’s aching asides. The rollicking arrangement, gospel-inflected and brassy, brilliantly echoes Allen Toussaint‘s charts for the Band’s legendary 1972 Rock of Ages recording.
By the end, there is little question of Helm’s importance, within that group and within the broader landscape of American roots music — as inventive interpreter, as country proselytizer. His sermon, shouted before a jubilant crowd: As long as these songs have been around, from his former group and from much further back, they will always provide us with a lasting communal joy. You get the sense that our time with them, even now, is just beginning.
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The May 17 release of Ramble at the Ryman coincides with the commemoration of Levon Helm Day on May 20, established in May 2006 by U.S. Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey of New York. “It continues to be an honor and a great pleasure for so many of us in New York and across America to bear witness to the incredible career and life of this very strong, extremely talented and generous man,” Hinchey said. “I look forward to many more Midnight Rambles.”