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By David Werther.

Levon Helm, Ramble at the Ryman (Vanguard Records, DVD, 2011)

           When the drummer from Turkey Scratch Arkansas had the chance to go on a world tour with one of the most important artists of the time, he declined. So, while his compatriots were backing the folk-gone-electric Bob Dylan, Levon Helm spent some of the time working on oil rigs. His explanation: "I wasn't made to be booed."

           Helm had already put in some time backing Dylan, and the negative audience response was too much for him. Up on the drum risers, what would be the best seat in the house with a receptive audience was the worst when an audience became hostile.

           Helm hooked up again with Dylan and company when they retreated to Woodstock New York and contributed to the widely bootlegged recording, The Great White Wonder, officially released years later as The Basement Tapes. Dylan had shifted gears again, and was exploring folk roots, or what critic Greil Marcus called "the old weird America." While the music of The Basement Tapes was just a phase, albeit a brilliant one, for Dylan, for Helm and company it was the beginning of their recording career as "The Band." Such was the impact of its unique mix of folk, country, and rhythm and blues, that Eric Clapton concluded that what he was doing with Cream was simply irrelevant. Popular culture in the late 60s and early 70s would have a new soundtrack, with songs like "The Weight," "Up on Cripple Creek," and "The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down."

           In the late 1990s the man who sang "The Weight" was battling throat cancer and worrying about medical bills. Such were the less than auspicious circumstances surrounding the final phase of Helm's musical career. Though he had lost his voice to throat cancer, he worked hard to regain it and did, and began staging shows, "Midnight Rambles," in his barn/recording studio.

           Traditionally, "midnight ramble" referred to the "adult" entertainment provided by traveling shows (cf. the Band's "W.S. Walcott Medicine Show"). Readers of Mark Twain will recognize the phenomenon in Huckleberry Finn, when Jim and Huck's companions, the con men, the duke and the king, advertise themselves as "world-renowned tragedians" on a handbill that ends with the line "LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED." Looking at those words the duke commented, 'There… if that line don't fetch them, I don't know Arkansas!"

           Helm knew how to draw folks to his rambles but these shows were strictly family affairs, including a pot luck dinner before the concert. With the help of Larry Campbell, a gifted multi-instrumentalist and veteran of Dylan's "Never Ending Tour," other members of the Levon Helm Band, and guest artists like Rickie Lee Jones, Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris, Helm was once again making the music he loved.

           In Ramble at the Ryman Helm changes venues from his barn/recording studio to the shrine of country music, the old church, now Ryman Auditorium, in Nashville TN. Among the set list are Chuck Berry's "Back to Memphis," Buddy and Julie Miller's "Wide River to Cross," P. Kennerly's "A Train Robbery," and selections from the Band's catalog. Guest artists include John Hiatt and Buddy Miller.

           The concert is available on both DVD and CD. The DVD is preferable for two reasons. First, since neither CD nor DVD provides generous liner notes, by seeing the show one gets a much better sense of the contributions from various members of the Levon Helm Band and guests. Second, watching the joyful interactions between artists one gets a sense of just how much they enjoy the music and play to serve it and each other. As a result, even listening to well known songs like "The Weight" and "Chest Fever" is a refreshing and enjoyable experience.

           Ramble at the Ryman (2011) received a Grammy. So, too, did Helm's previous two recordings, Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009). Three Grammys, three times in a row. Then on April 19, 2012, at age 71, Levon Helm, the man who wasn't made to be booed, passed away.

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