Levon Helm Band – Ryman Auditorium (Nashville, TN)
For too large a chunk of the past decade, throat cancer had limited Levon Helm to sitting in on drums with a variety of bands. So it’s been one unexpected, serendipitous kick that this much-loved, unmistakable Arkansas-side Delta voice has improved enough to get back on the job — almost exclusively, until just lately, in the loose, R&B-dive-inspired “midnight ramble” vaudeville-style house shows he throws at his place in Woodstock, New York. With his large soul/blues/rock/country-ready Levon Helm Band behind him, he’s now taking the roots music extravaganza on the road, and Nashville was the first stop outside New York.
“It’s about time you got to the Ryman, Mr. Helm,” teased Emmylou Harris, one of his multiple local guest performers. By the time the evening of tight R&B, bluegrass jams, soulful solo turns, and very credible evocations of The Band’s sound on numbers from their songbook came to a standing-ovation close, Levon and company had also been joined onstage in varied combinations by Buddy Miller, Sam Bush, daughter Amy Helm (singing funkier than generally called for by her band Ollabelle, the evening’s opener), Helm mentor and guitar whiz Fred Carter Jr., Leroy Parnell, Ricky Skaggs, and, for the “I Shall Be Released” encore, John Hiatt and Sheryl Crow.
Even with this loose and happy outpouring of Nashville talent, Levon’s own band — which included guitarist Jimmy Vivino, blues harpist/singer Little Sammy Davis, pianist Brian Mitchell, and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell — was particularly impressive. They proved adaptable and greasy enough to roll right along with their leader’s classic, long-armed American slap drumming.
Campbell, longtime string master for Bob Dylan, played every sort of stringed instrument and style with loose precision, sang harmonies as needed, and then, mind-bogglingly, proceeded to simulate the pyrotechnic drama of the absent Garth Hudson’s organ opening to “Chest Fever” on electric guitar.
At the center of all this was Helm’s singing. Among those old Band songs he called up were ones on which he’d famously sung lead — “Rag Mama Rag” and “Ophelia” and yep, “The Weight” — but also a surprising handful on which his late buddies Richard Manuel and Rick Danko had. You could sense Helm was very, very pleased just to be able to play the drum or mandolin parts and sing backup vocals on “The Shape I’m In” — and, for that matter, the Dylan & the Hawks-era “It Takes A Lot To Laugh”. Helm was often beaming uncontrollably over these relaxed, yet riveting, soulful proceedings. But then, so was the audience on hand.