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Rams Head Ramble

The Levon Helm Band, Rams Head Live, April 24

Jefferson Jackson Steele
SOLO ARTIST: Levon Helm leads his band.

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 4/30/2008

One of the most exciting aspects about Levon Helm, the legendary drummer for the Band, starting to stage public performances again a few years back was the concerts' setting. Dubbed "Levon Helm's Midnight Rambles," a bunch of aged hippies would drive their assorted hybrids up to Helm's farm in Woodstock, N.Y., and gather to hear the singer perform an "intimate set" with tons of special guests and other grizzled old roots-rockers. It sounded great.

The Levon Helm Band's Thursday night performance at Rams Head Live had none of that fabled hay-loft magic or unplugged intimacy, and only a few special guests, but overall, it was amazing to see the old-timer rock out. There's something about a singing drummer, especially one who sings with as much nuance and panache as Helm, leading a band.

Over a nearly two-and-a-half-hour set, Helm covered a good portion of the Band classics, but focused on slow, New Orleans-style blues versions of an eclectic catalog of songs that are clearly closer to his heart. The 11-piece band, crammed comfortably onto the TV set-style stage, opened with a version of "Ophelia" that was too heavy on the drums but had the brass section blowing with an unrestrained, carnival-band tenor. Helm kept on flashing an eerily perfect set of pearly whites at the crowd during bluesy versions of Bob Dylan's "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" and Chuck Berry's "Back to Memphis." He's got a fantastic voice for a man who survived cancer of the vocal cords.

Helm hit his stride about seven songs in, just after his daughter Amy lent some gorgeous harmony to a four-part vocal version of "Long Black Veil," and it was no coincidence that, at this point, the band started pumping out numbers from 2007's Dirt Farmer, Helm's Grammy-winning album--yes, the band reminded the crowd how proud it was of it. "Got Me a Woman," a ragtime-funk song that could have been left off the Band's 1968 debut, Music From Big Pink, was suitably raucous, and "Poor Old Dirt Farmer," a clumsily heavy waltz, nearly approached the intimacy of a Midnight Ramble, as most of the band left the stage, letting Helm, his daughter, guitarist Theresa Williams, and fiddler and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell belt out a mostly a cappella version that was the most old-timey thing they sang all night.

Helm's presence is definitely commanding when he's leading a song, but that's only about half the time onstage. For the rest of it, he hands off the reins to what sounds to be a group of brilliant studio musicians who don't catalyze with the kind of heat that the Band hit on. "Rag Mama Rag" fell a bit flat; ditto for Campbell's stab at singing lead on "Chest Fever"--a role that originally fell to late Band pianist Richard Manuel but in the years after his death was taken up by Helm himself.

Octogenarian Mississippi-born bluesman Little Sammy Davis played harmonica for a few tunes, and although he was a little unenergetic, the crowd was deferential to the man whom Campbell introduced as "one of the last great bluesmen." He joined the stage for the closer, a sing-along version of "I Shall Be Released," which found the WTMD-FM demographic/bearded baby boomers belting out the civil-rights anthem. The air was quivering during the choruses, though the band members traded off on each verse. Levon, of course, got the last one.

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