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Vanguard (079 8589)

Ophelia, Back To Memphis, Fannie Mae, Scratch My Back, Evangeline, No Depression In Heaven, Wide River To Cross, Deep Elem Blues, Anna Lee, Rag Mama Rag, Time Out For The Blues, A Train Robbery, The Shape I'm In, Chest Fever, The Weight.

Levon Helm's Midnight Ramble Sessions, originally held at his Woodstock Recording Studios, got their inspiration from Southern travelling medicine shows that featured musicians who sold dubious concoctions which claimed to cure everything from colic to impotence. In contrast, Helm sells nothing but great performances by the cream of American roots music so the likes of blues pianist Jimmie Johnson, New Orleans master Doctor John, country legend Emmylou Harris and blues guitar picker Jimmy Vivino have all been invited to join in at one time or another.

Recently, by popular demand, the show drifted away from Woodstock to turn up in cities and this particular one ripped the roof off the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville; the scene, in it's time, of some spectacular country music extravaganzas.

On a line-up of rock and roll, blues, early country, traditional and, of course, The Band material, Helm and his musicians surge forward with beefy performances that, at times, top the originals. Little Sammy Davis, a hefty blues harmonica man from way back, re-invents Fannie Mae and Baby Scratch My Back with verve, Buddy Miller does a fantastic job on his own song Wide River To Cross and then the rock solid guitar picker Teresa Williams demonstrates just what the word "classy" means on her tremendous version of Time Out For The Blues.

While Brian Mitchell of The Levon Helm Band manages to destroy the classic Shape I'm In (despite the stunning trombone solo from Clarke Gatton), Sam Bush's mandolin brings out the full beauty of Evangeline and Helm sings his heart out on Ophelia and The Weight and absolutely soars on Rag Mama Rag which blisters along with gorgeous twin fiddling by Sam Bush and Larry Campbell and a show-stopping tuba solo from Clarke Gatton. Sheryl Crow turns into a country girl again, complete with autoharp, on the Carter Family song No Depression in Heaven and the wonderful John Hiatt joins Helm on The Weight. I'd have liked more of John - I could listen to his hoarse barking vocals all night!

This is a DVD loaded with great moments but one of my favourites is when guitarist Larry Campbell fervently interprets Gareth Hudson's original organ intro from Chest Fever on his electric guitar. Then there's Helm's magnificent rendering of Anna Lee; a new song from his ‘Dirt Farmer' album which sounds like it'd been mouldering in the Arkansas dirt for generations until Levon dug it out and dusted it off.

I've loved Levon Helm ever since he and The Band first locked horns with Bob Dylan and it's great to see him looking as poised and confident as he does here. You get great guests, great music and great production - making it one of the most enjoyable DVD's you'll see all year!



Review Date: July 2011

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