In his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel's on Fire, Levon Helm wrote that he always considered the drummer's stool the best seat in the house. Anyone who has seen him play in person knows he meant it. Helm's enthusiasm radiates, whether he's playing one of his "Midnight Rambles" in the 250-seat studio/performance space attached to his rural Woodstock home or at a festival like this weekend's Solid Sound, which he's co-headlining with Wilco. The spirit comes across on his new CD/DVD, Ramble at the Ryman (Vanguard Records), but the best way to appreciate it is in person.
IN CONTROL When Levon Helm is cooking, there is still no drummer in rock and roll who can approach his crisp, relentless drive.
On a temperate early June evening, 71-year-old Helm walked into his Ramble beaming. He looked warm, kindly — diminutive, with a slight hunch. Anyone unfamiliar with his considerable history with the Band, Bob Dylan, and Ronnie Hawkins might have had trouble distinguishing Helm in a line-up at the feed store. But from the opening crack of his snare on the Band's "W.S. Walcott Medicine Show," Helm was powerful and charismatic. He drove the band through two hours of Americana, New Orleans stomp, and blues. When Helm is cooking, there is still no drummer in rock and roll who can approach his crisp, relentless drive. And Helm is always cooking.
His voice was shot — more a result of over-rehearsing for the previous night's Ramble with Mavis Staples than his recovery from throat cancer a decade ago. Singing "Blind Willie McTell," a song on which he once backed Bob Dylan, Helm's hoary scratch sounded otherworldly, as if he were trying to summon the old bluesman from the grave. He only attempted to sing a couple of songs, and when his voice faded someone else in the band stepped in immediately.
Helm's ensemble includes his daughter, Amy, who, like her father, sings and plays drums and mandolin; singer/acoustic guitarist Teresa Williams; fiery lead guitarist Larry Campbell; and piano player Brian Mitchell, who often steps up and provides a bit of vocal twang in Helm's absence. Several times during the show, Helm gave the individual players their own one-man standing ovations, encouraging the crowd to do the same. Best seat in the house.
Afterwards, standing in his kitchen just off the studio, Helm marveled at his band. "Didn't they play it great? They're the best. That's the reward of playing this many years, you get to play with people like that." He laughed about his voice being in rough shape. "We've been pretty busy all week, so I didn't have a lot left, voice-wise. But you know with our band, it don't make a lot of difference because we've got about seven lead singers."
Many of the staff started working the Rambles in 2003 when the intention was to help Helm get back on his feet financially. At the mention of Bow Thayer, a New England singer/songwriter whom Helm backed on his 2006 release, Spend It All, Helm motioned to a rocking chair in his living room that Thayer made for him. "Isn't that great?" he said. "I don't know when he's coming, but he comes down and plays with us."