Sunday, June 26, 2011

Leven Helm Ramble At The Ryman 2011

Levon Helm has a new record out, and it is cause for celebration. Recorded live at the Grand Old Opry's Ryman Auditorium with the crack Levon Helm Band augmented by an All-Star lineup of guests, it's rich with fine performances. Larry Campbell has been with Levon for several years, and his guitar playing, writing and arranging are excellent. Little Sammy Davis sings his ragged blues on quite a few songs, and his harmonica lights up several. The horn section is talented and the horn charts are especially good, veering between New Orleans and Muscle Shoals, and adding depth, soul and interest along the way. Amy Helm and Teresa Williams sing like angels. And Levon sounds great. 

The record, a 2-LP set, opens with Ophelia, a staple in Helm's live shows, and an oft-overlooked Band gem. It rocks, and the horns shine. Chuck Berry's Back To Memphis follows, and keeps the energy up high, the band cooking with gas and Helm having a fine time. Fannie Mae and Baby Scratch My Back follow, both featuring Little Sammy Davis's vocal and harmonica, and really the whole band. Guitar, horn, harmonica and piano solos - everybody gets a feature.

The high wail of The Band's Evangeline, with Sheryl Crow helping out Amy and Teresa's vocals is good, although I'm not quite as fond of Helm's more authentic Appalachian moments, and this is one of several on the record. Crow sticks around for the Carter family's No Depression In Heaven, and it's OK. Then it's Buddy Miller singing his own Wide River To Cross, and Miller is very very good, and the songs benefits from lovely harmonies on the chorus. Deep Elem Blues features the band again to excellent effect, with guitar, piano and sax solos, and a rolling shuffle of good old-timey fun.

Anna Lee begins side three, and it's more of Helm's country traditionalism, but a sparse arrangement and heavenly harmonies are ethereal. A fine rendition of Rag Mama Rag follows, and then Amy takes the lead on Time Out For The Blues, a rollicking blues stomp featuring the band again, and they're smokin'. The side ends with A Train Robbery, the last of Levon's lonesome country blues before the excitement of side four rips the roof off.

Side four is The Shape I'm In (sung by Davis), Chest Fever (with Campbell's guitar playing the organ parts), and The Weight (with John Hiatt trading verses with Levon). All three are great Band songs that are done to perfection with both reverence and updated arrangements, and crazy good ensemble playing.

Levon's on a roll of late, and this is one of his best ever.

No comments:

Post a Comment