Ramble at the Ryman
Most Saturday nights, Levon Helm puts on a show called the Midnight Ramble at his studio in Woodstock, New York. His band plays and they feature a guest or two. Tickets cost $150.00 and typically sell out. I’ve never been, but I’ve heard from several people who have that it’s worth every penny.
Occasionally, Levon takes the show on the road. He’ll be here to close out the Ottawa Folk Festival on August 28. Ramble at the Ryman captures the legendary singer and drummer from The Band, along with his band, and several guests in a 2008 Ramble show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, one of the most legendary music halls south of New York City.
It’s an eclectic blend of Americana music that Levon and his associates play. There’s lots of New Orleans in the mix – particularly in the second line horn arrangements. There’s also Memphis R&B, Appalachian folk and old-time country, blues, bluegrass, and, to be sure, rock ‘n’ roll. Levon, a survivor of throat cancer, does some of the singing, but, a lot of the vocals are handled by band members and guest artists.
Six of the 15 tracks are drawn from Robbie Robertson’s Band songbook and it’s obvious, three-and-a-half decades after The Last Waltz, Levon still finds a lot of joy and opportunities for creative expression in the songs. The album opens with “Ophelia,” with its celebratory, second line horns-meets-The Band arrangement. Along the way, Levon revisits the Cajun-flavoured “Evangeline,” sung as a duet with Sheryl Crow – their version holds up well next to the original version which featured Emmylou Harris singing with The Band – and “Rag Mama Rag,” done bayou-meets-Bourbon Street-style with some great trombone work by Clark Gayton. Later, the album closes with three Band songs as Levon and company breathe new life into “The Shape I’m In,” “Chest Fever” and “The Weight.”
Among the other highlights are a sweet version of the Carter Family’s “No Depression Heaven,” with lead vocal by Sheryl Crow, a bluegrass-meets-Dixeland-meets-rock ‘n’ roll arrangement of the traditional “Deep Elem Blues,” and a sweet country version of Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Wide River to Cross” with guests Buddy Miller on guitar and vocals and Sam Bush on mandolin.
It all whets the appetite for the Ottawa Folk Festival show.