This last project from Levon Helm, hand-selected with guitarist Larry Campbell from five years of Midnight Ramble concert recordings between 2006-10, might have had a funereal tone — arriving as it does after his devastating loss. Instead, The Midnight Ramble Sessions, Volume 3 (due July 1, 2014 via Vanguard Records and Levon Helm Studios) is a musical fete, an unadorned celebration of everything the former Band drummer meant to music but also of everything the music meant to Helm.
The set-opening “Same Thing,” plucked from the Band’s 1993 album Jericho, finds Helm howling over a New Orleans-inflected rhythmic lope and, in that moment, the years melt away. You can hear Helm as he was, playing backwoods dives and front-porch singalongs, learning the contours of these folkways one song at a time — like a farmer pacing across shotgun rows of farmland until he knows every grain of fertile dirt. At the same time, The Midnight Ramble Sessions, Volume 3 offers new surprises in the form of Helm’s able band: Jimmy Vivino’s slide gives the song a nasty little menace, while Mike Merritt thunks happily away on a bass part once laid down by Rick Danko. The song’s street-parade attitude is made complete by a series of oh-so-funky horn blasts.
And Levon Helm sounds happy. Scratch that. He sounds ecstatic, in a moment that he was made for — in a Willie Dixon song that sprung from a common history, in the old Barn once more. It’s a wonder to behold. And this concert compilation is just getting underway.
Helm returns for a tough interpretation of “Drivin’ Wheel,” opening a Junior Parker songbook that earlier provided “Mystery Train” for 1973’s Moondog Matinee. Only Helm goes deeper in this loose, live setting — hitting every downbeat, and every verse with this hale gusto. When everybody lays out, just as Helm yelps “Now, wait a minute! I wanna tell you about my baby,” there’s an audible gasp of appreciation from the crowd. This is no valedictory, no victory lap. This is someone, health issues be damned, still at the very top of his game. When Helm’s band returns to this song’s appropriately driving cadence, it’s with a newfound sense of purpose. They can’t help but be inspired, too.
“One More Shot” returns to the mythic landscape that shaped so many of Helm’s signature moments with the Band, only this time — rather than doomed Confederate soldiers or ousted Cajun wanderers — he’s exploring the legend of Jesse James. Written by Paul Kennerley for an unjustly forgotten 1980 concept album featuring Helm, Emmylou Harris and Johnny Cash, “One More Shot” illustrates that Helm’s interpretive powers remained, until the end, utterly undiminished.
Finally, he reclaims “Take Me To the River,” a song which had — via a late-1970s new-wave take by the Talking Heads — moved far afield from its original grease-popping, Al Green-sung Memphis roots. Not here. Helm brays, he cries, he yelps, all while creating this most spacious of pockets for his own Bourbon Tabernacle Choir to fill. At one point, Steven Bernstein’s trombone threatens to lift the roof right off their country environs, then Helm comes squalling back in to finish the job.
Elsewhere, Allen Toussaint — a longtime Helm collaborator, from “Life’s a Carnival” on 1971’s Cahoots to the 1972 Rock of Ages concert release, from his final album in the five-man Band lineup (1978’s The Last Waltz) to his last studio release (2009’s Electric Dirt) — sits in on a raucous version of “A Certain Girl.” Long-time Helm Band member Brian Mitchell also offers a rough-hewn take on Bob Dylan’s “A Simple Twist of Fate,” made complete by Helm’s rascally swagger at the drums.
Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter and musical heir, is featured on Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That Good News” and Dolly Parton’s “The Beautiful Lie,” while Chris Robinson — who’d recorded the Black Crowes’ 2009 album Before the Frost … Until the Freeze at Helm’s Barn — tears through Elmore James’ “Shake Your Money Maker.” The Midnight Ramble Sessions, Volume 3 also features Elvis Costello, second-era Band guitarist Jim Weider, Teresa Williams and Byron Isaacs, among others.
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