As Emmylou Harris, guest # gazillion, trotted out onto the stage of the Ryman in a knee-length black gown, sparkly black fishnet hose, and cowboy boots, she softly uttered in her sweet, Southern voice: “Well hi, Levon! It’s about time you come on down to Nashville.” Damn right, Ms. Emmylou! When southerners catch wind of a Levon Helm “with special guests” appearance, said southerners might do well to make every effort to attend.
This night at the Ryman was unlike any other show I’ve seen before, there or anywhere else. It was special, fabulous, and bittersweet, and those who attended will likely remember it for many years to come.
The Levon Helm Band performance began shortly after the concert promoter presented Mr. Helm with a sparkly new mandolin, which he accepted graciously whilst wearing that familiar smile we all know so well from The Last Waltz. As he crossed the stage to sit down at his drum kit, a large, black pit bull followed him happily. Before sitting down, Helm carefully laid out his coat on the floor for his dog, which would come and go throughout the night as it pleased.
This lineup featured seven people at its smallest, including a two-person horn section, an organist, a pianist, and two guitarists, one of whom was the accomplished Larry Campbell. Helm, ever the entertainer, introduced a steady stream of special guests throughout the night. Little Sammy Davis, one of the first of these, tore it up on his harmonica during the blues classic “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” Sam Bush and Helm’s daughter Amy joined in on the Springsteen-penned “Atlantic City,” which appears on The Band’s Jericho. Joining in on the finale, which was, of course, “The Weight,” were Harris, Sam Bush, Buddy Miller, Amy Helm, and Theresa Williams. The encore, “I Shall Be Released,” featured these in addition to John Hiatt and Sheryl Crow, who were pulled out of the audience to join in.
The Helm/Harris duet “Evangeline” was an early highlight of the evening. With that great big grin, Helm strummed his mandolin during the performance, and despite his frail appearance and recent bout with throat cancer, his vocals were surprisingly strong. Harris’s voice rang out as sweetly as ever, and with eyes closed, listeners might think they had traveled back in time to hear the two in their glory days.
For every highlight, of course, there was a sad moment. In the most sobering performance of the evening, Helm Band guitarist Jimmy Vivino mimicked Richard Manuel’s soulful performance from Big Pink’s “Tears of Rage” (which also appeared on Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes, on which he was backed by The Band). One was instantly reminded of Manuel and, by extension, the more recently deceased Rick Danko. The appreciative crowd grew silent, as if they were meditating about the members of The Band who couldn’t be onstage that night.
Another performance that wound up being somewhat of a downer was the encore, “I Shall Be Released.” A virtual devalued counterpart to the version on The Last Waltz, this piece was marred by the fact that many of the guest singers did not seem to know the words (ahem: Sheryl Crow). It was hard not to think about the star-studded array from that Thanksgiving Day performance in 1976 where everyone from Neil Young to Joni Mitchell to Van Morrison to Bob Dylan to.... you get the picture, was singing along proudly and confidently.
These disappointments seem inevitable, however, when a performer whose prime has passed returns to the stage. The band certainly made up for it with other favorites by The Band that include “Ophelia,” “(I Don’t Want to Hang Up My) Rock ‘N’ Roll Shoes,” and “Chest Fever.” Guitarist Larry Campbell attempted to guitarize Garth Hudson’s famous organ intro to “Chest Fever” and damn near pulled it off. There wasn’t a question about any of these performers’ musical prowess: they were good, and they knew it. That’s why they were onstage with Levon Helm.
Having heard a weird and difficult-to-place performance by Ollabelle back in 2004, I was not anxious to hear them a second time. Their music is more folkily gospel than gospelly folk, and I remember feeling nothing but confusion when I heard them open for Ryan Adams right before Hurricane Ivan blazed through the South. A friend and I opted for a steak and spaghetti restaurant instead, where I learned from a lady in the restroom that the restaurant was packed not because of the Levon Helm Band but because of Beyonce, who was performing across the street at the Coliseum. As we pulled out into the night after my one (and probably only) experience hearing one of my musical idols, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Beyonce would still be keeping audiences equally entranced 30 years from now. Something tells me she won’t.