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Levon Helm Ramble works, for the most part

Ryman Auditorium, Nashville, September 17, 2008

Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz

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Levon Helm opened the Americana conference with his Ramble show, meaning that guests galore were the order of the night. And what guests they proved to be, although Helm held his own - for the most part.

Helm, who continues touring behind his Grammy disc, "Dirt Farmer," his first solo disc in 25 years, mixed up his own songs with those of his former band, The Band. The presentation was one large configuration with a four-piece horns section, keyboard, guitar, two acoustic guitars, bass and more.

Helm and company started off Ophelia with a sound that was decidedly bent towards, a funky, soulful end. The horns section particularly punctuated the music time and again, breathing a high dose of activity into the music. Helm is not one to reign in his group all that much, giving them a big chance to play out and stretch out the songs.

Helm remained a very sure handed drummer, keeping a steady beat. He also would step out front on several occasions, playing as ringed instrument.

As for the guests, chief among them, albeit for only one song, was Robert Plant and Alison Krauss. Their appearance, doing Ledbelly's Black Girl, sent the crowd into a frenzy, one of many actually during the night. They worked their typical magic together as they have on tour this year.

Sheryl Crow was one of the more active guests, staying on stage for awhile. A weak point was a duet she did with Helm on Evangeline because she is such a far superior singer that whoever thought up the duet idea deserves a big demerit.

Other guests included John Hiatt and Sam Bush, who was stellar on mandolin during an extended stint on stage, Billy Bob Thornton and Delbert McClinton.

One of the highlights was the closing performance of Dylan's Forever Young, which featured almost all of the evening's guests. McClinton probably should not have since he seemed a bit lost lyrically at one point.

While the concert mainly worked, the big problem on four songs was the quality of Helm's voice. His is not the strongest going to begin with, but he was way off key. Unfortunately for him, the show was being recorded for a DVD. Hard to imagine any of the songs would remain in the final mix.

And why the show started 50 minutes late was anyone's guess.

Fortunately for Helm, he was on target far more often than not. Yes,the guests most definitely helped and made for a special evening, but ultimately the show rested on Helm's shoulders, and for most of the evening, he was up to the task.