(Vanguard Records; 120 minutes)
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Reports on Levon Helm’s imminent demise are obviously
exaggerated, if the visual and audio evidence provided by Ramble At The Ryman is any indication. Rumors were rife that the
71-year old singer, drummer and multi-instrumentalist was suffering from
assorted age-associated ailments and his vocals had become the first casualty.
And yet, here he is, anchoring an otherwise unwieldy outfit with a full horn
section and various big name guests to boot. Although the presence of Sheryl
Crow, John Hiatt, Buddy Miller, Billy Bob Thornton and Sam Bush add star power
to the proceedings, and could have possibly upstaged its star, Helm is clearly
in command, revisiting classic songs from the Band songbook (“Ophelia,”
“Evangeline,” “The Shape I’m In,” and the obvious signature stalwarts like “Rag
Mama Rag,” “Chest Fever” and “The Weight.”) as well as selected offerings
plucked from a traditional template. His rugged authority and respected
reputation as an Americana
icon are further affirmed with the down home designs of Buddy Miller’s “Wide
River To Cross,” the folk finesse of “Anna Lee” and the sturdy blues of “Fannie
Mae” and “Baby Scratch My Back” in particular.
Yet, even while the music provides the set’s homespun
embrace, the interaction between the artists onstage, as well as audience and
entertainers, makes this performance all the more memorable. The intimate
environs of the Ryman (“Ain’t no better place to play than the Ryman auditorium,”
Helm asserts prior to ending the evening with a remarkable read of “The
Weight”), provide the most natural of settings for this sometimes-ragtag revue.
Consequently, while the DVD offers little more than a ringside seat to the
proceedings, the opportunity to watch Helm – perhaps the best singing drummer
in Rock ‘n’ Roll – strut his stuff by vocalizing and drumming simultaneously,
and then making it look like a breeze besides, is alone worth the price of
admission. With varying camera angles highlighting the enthusiasm of the
players, there’s all the inducement needed. With Levon Helm still at the helm
and hitting his stride, this Ramble rarely falters.