There’s no reason to be surprised at the release of a Levon Helm live album. For much of the previous decade, after his struggle with throat cancer, Helm has held his Midnight Ramble shows at his home in Woodstock, New York. Loose and playful, these shows define this era in Helm’s career, which seems as much about gratitude and joy as anything else (good playing excepted, maybe). These shows occasionally go on the road, and the show at Nashville’s famous Ryman Auditorium would of course be a noteworthy one, and with strong performances from all concerned, Ramble at the Ryman is a reasonable representative of the period.
The show gains strength from the Levon Helm Band’s ability to integrate its numerous guests without the show ever losing its general feel. That it rolls so much like a jam session makes it more engaging, and when artists such as John Hiatt, Buddy Miller, Sheryl Crow, or Sam Bush stop by, Helm’s tight band keeps doing its thing and, if you’re not paying attention, you could even miss that someone new has stopped by. Miller’s appearance might be a slight exception, because this performance of his and Julie Miller’s “Wide River to Cross” adds an otherwise missing element of solemnity to the concert.
Of course, you can push the guests aside a little, because the show is largely about Helm. By the time this concert was recorded in September 2008, Helm had released Dirt Famer, which won a Grammy and was the official Return of Levon album. By this point his voice had returned well enough that he could sing a number of lead vocals and, while his voice isn’t what it was, it still makes for a great listen. Helm’s drumming is functional, but nothing about Ramble at the Ryman suggests this is a drummer’s record.
Before this concert was recorded, two Midnight Ramble albums had already been released, but these releases came before the return of Helm’s vocals and the development of this lineup. The group had cohered for Dirt Farmer into something excellent. Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell stands out, but there are no weak spots here. I continue to think that Teresa Williams, here given “Time Out for the Blues”, is a hidden treasure needing more spotlight.
That said, the timing of this release seems just a bit odd. With the recording made between Helm’s two solo recordings from this era, it makes commercial sense that it would have been held until Dirt Farmer and Electric Dirt had their respective runs, but even after just two and a half years it seems likely that the band is changing somewhat. With Ryman, we’re given the standard live album snapshot, but we don’t get to look at it until after it’s a little outdated.
Part of the point may be that, as we often hear, the music here is “timeless”, and with the band being so stronger a little lapse in time doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a compliment to the band to suggest that the show doesn’t necessarily stand out among other performances; the venue seems as important to the selection of this concert as one to release as does anything else. The band’s strong enough that you could probably randomly pick a show and end up with an okay recording.
If you’ve followed the group, though, that might limit your response to this album, as you get exactly what you’d expec—variations on roots music, some Band songs, some Helm songs, and some reworked traditional numbers. The band strays less during this concert than it has at other times (there are no zydeco numbers here, for example). While that makes for a more cohesive set, it also takes a little of the rollick out of the good time. Of course, if you’ve been following the Levon Helm Band, you might not be here for the surprise factor, and the concert does deliver what you’d expect, and in this case, that can’t be a bad thing.