Levon Helm’s Wednesday night (July 18) concert at the Ryman Auditorium would have been a special evening in Nashville even without the appearances by Emmylou Harris, Buddy Miller and Sam Bush and surprise guests Sheryl Crow, John Hiatt, Ricky Skaggs and Lee Roy Parnell.
It was appropriate that the event was a fundraiser for the Americana Music Association. Helm was a member of The Band, which could have been described as Americana several decades before anyone attempted to categorize wide-ranging genre, and he was the primary voice heard on classics such as “The Weight,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek.”
Helm, now 67, battled cancer of the vocal cords a few years ago. If his voice is a little weaker than it was during the ’60s and ’70s, he still sounds more vibrant than many singers from that era who have experienced no significant health problems. His drumming still has the funky looseness that’s been a constant throughout his career, and he also accompanied himself on mandolin on several songs. Judging by the ear-to-ear grin he displayed during almost two and a-half hours onstage at the Ryman, the man still loves to play music — especially when he’s with longtime friends.
The Ryman show evolved from Helm’s ongoing Midnight Ramble Sessions, a series of performances at his home studio in Woodstock, N.Y. Those gatherings have featured numerous guests, including Elvis Costello and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. The Nashville performance ran smoothly, but it was in no way a slick, tightly-orchestrated production. In fact, Helm’s dog wandered out onstage several times, aware but mostly oblivious to the crowd. It was hard to keep track of the number of musicians involved in the show because the concert featured an ever-changing array of singers and players that included Nashville saxophonist Jeff Coffin and members of Ollabelle, the group (featuring Helm’s daughter, Amy) that opened the show.
The evening was filled with old fashioned three-chord rock ‘n’ roll, but the greatest crowd reaction, not surprisingly, came with the familiar material from Helm’s days in The Band, including “Ophelia” and “Rag Mama Rag.” Members of Helm’s current band provided vocals on several other classics.
The first guest of the evening was Little Sammy Davis, a 78-year-old blues singer and harmonica player born in Mississippi. Davis’ two songs in the spotlight included a take on Slim Harpo’s “Scratch My Back.” A little later, Helm provided an intriguing choice of cover tunes by following Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City” with the old Johnnie & Jack country tune, “Ashes of Love.” The latter song got a Cajun twist with fiddling from Larry Campbell, who played guitar on most of the other songs.
Bush’s mandolin work increased the energy a little more when he arrived onstage to sing “I’m Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Buddy Miller arrived by telling Helm, “Thanks for inviting me to the party,” and then sang “Wide River to Cross,” a song from Universal United House of Prayer which won album of the year honors at the 2005 Americana Music Awards.
Harris was next, performing “Rough and Rocky” from her 1979 album, Blue Kentucky Girl. Bush and Campbell then provided twin fiddle backing for Harris and Helm on “Evangeline,” which was featured in The Last Waltz, the concert film that marked guitarist and primary songwriter Robbie Robertson’s final performance with the members of The Band.
Fred Carter Jr., the veteran session guitarist who is best known these days as Deana Carter’s father, made an unannounced appearance, noting, “Levon, you ain’t never sounded better.” Carter then strapped on a Fender Telecaster guitar to provide some lead work on “(I Don’t Want to Hang Up) My Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes.”
Keyboardist Brian Mitchell sang lead vocals on “The Shape I’m In,” and guitarist Jimmy Vivino did the honors on “Tears of Rage,” two songs closely identified with The Band. While both were admirable efforts, it was also a sad reminder that two of The Band’s other vocalists — keyboardist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko — died far too young.
Parnell apparently hadn’t heard Helm when he called him to the stage earlier in the evening, but the Texas-born singer and slide guitarist finally showed up for one of the anticipated highlights, “The Weight,” the final song before the encore. And what an encore it turned out to be.
With Skaggs on mandolin, Hiatt and Crow shared verses of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released” with Harris, Miller, Bush, members of Ollabelle and Helm providing the backing. It was one of those occasions where ticket-holders walked away knowing they had just experienced what can only be described as “a Nashville moment.”
If the audience had anything to quibble about, it might have been that the set list didn’t include two classics — “Up on Cripple Creek” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Earlier in the evening, though, Harris told Helm, “You are an American treasure.” Those witnessing Wednesday’s concert at the Ryman are unlikely to disagree.