Thursday, September 18, 2008

Did you hear about the midnight rambler?

NASHVILLE -- OK, so it wasn't quite midnight, but Levon Helm took his legendary Ramble on the road to the Ryman for more than three hours earlier tonight.

Normally, the Ramble is set at Helm's home/recording studio in Woodstock, N.Y. But for the Americana Music Awards, he staged it at the "mother church of country music ..."

The show opened and closed countless standing ovations later with an audience sing-along of Helm's "The Weight," followed at the end only by an all-star encore version of "Forever Young."

For Helm, who has battled illness and at one point was told he would never sing again, the last song was an affirmation, a celebration and a prayer. His peers praised him for his drumming, his singing, his mandolin playing, his songwriting and his soul. If he hadn't been such an on-stage presence, you might have feared the worst.

The hard-core troubadour Steve Earle was in the 2,000-plus audience with his wife, singer Allison Moorer, who wore an angel's wing design on her back. John Hiatt was there, too. All three ended up on stage before it was through, joining Delbert McClinton, Sam Bush, Buddy Miller, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant, Sheryl Crow, Billy Bob Thorton and a few other visitors.

Helm graciously shared the spotlight with his guests, turning over some well-known songs from The Band to his daughter and members of his 10-piece band-- including a mighty four-piece horn section that threatened to turn songs like "Rag Mama Rag" into a New Orleans Second Line procession.

The keyboard intro and lead to "Chest Fever" became a guitar showcase, perhaps in deference to absent friends.

Krauss and Plant, the most unlikely pairing despite their best-selling CD "Raising Sand," did the first song they ever performed together, the traditional "In the Pines," frequently linked to Leadbelly.

Crow told the crowd she was just a "frustrated country singer." And then proved at least half of that statement.

Miller mentioned that he had no right to sing the song he and his wife Julie wrote, "Wide River To Cross," since Helm covered it on his Grammy Award-winning CD, "Dirt Farmer," Helm's first solo studio effort in 25 years.

"Are you ready, Levon?" they asked at the start.

"I hope so," he said. And then joyfully, triumphantly began the Ramble.

What a great start to the AMA week.

The show ran so long I missed the everybodyfields at The Basement, but I did catch Anne McCue at 3rd and Lindsley, the last few songs of Marcia Ball's set as well as Kim Richey, Will Kimbrough and Mando Saenz at the Mercy Lounge.

Ball closed with her hurricane survival song "Ride It Out," from her new CD, "Peace, Love & BBQ."

Best non-legal legal notice: "We're filming tonight's show for a DVD. We'll be shooting the audience. What that means is, if you're sitting next to someone you shouldn't be seen with, it's time to move."

Best end-of-evening advice: "Don't drive home faster than your angels can fly."

Thursday night brings the Americana Awards and Honors show, also at the Ryman, with the stellar house band led by Buddy Miller. Showcases at the five clubs start at 10.

As always at these showcases, we're looking for people to bring to Tampa at the TBPAC. Our programmers will get the reports and do their best to book the best performers.

Stay tuned. -- MichaelK

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