The release of The Levon Helm Band – The Midnight Ramble Sessions Volume 3 on Vanguard/Levon Helm Studios represents the last musical project with which the late drummer of The Band was involved. Helm personally hand-picked the album’s 13 songs from a five-year period of live Midnight Ramble recordings, 2006-2010 at the Barn, with his longtime band member and musical director, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell.
The album features performances from the Levon Helm Band with special guests including the Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson, Jimmy Vivino, Elvis Costello and New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, capturing the homespun spirit of those gatherings, a worthy posthumous tribute to Helm’s indomitable spirit and peerless musical abilities. Aside from listening to hours of tapes to come up with the final song selection, Helm also designed the cover art for the album, which solidifies his legacy as an enduring and revered musical figure.
The album includes some of Helm’s favorites, from Muddy Waters’ “The Same Thing,” Sam Cooke’s “Ain’t That Good News,” Blind Willie Johnson’s “God Don’t Never Change,” Junior Parker’s “:Drivin’ Wheel,” Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist of Fate,” Carl Perkins’ “Turn Around” to Dolly Parton’s “The Beautiful Lie,” Elmore James’ “Shake Your Money Maker” and Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”
Larry Campbell explains that, after the Electric Dirt record, he and Levon began formulating what a third album might encompass. “He wanted it to be more representative of what this band was like at a live show, featuring all of the players,” says Campbell. “Levon was having health problems, so our plan was to go through the archives and pull out tunes that best showed what our lifestyle was like.
“One of our engineers Brendan McDonough was charged with the task of weeding through tons of audio files to find songs that were suitably recorded, and Levon eventually decided on the titles that he wanted to include. That was his real, main motive, to showcase the band as best we could. And then he chose the tunes that he liked playing, and we edited it down to fit on a single CD.
“There were probably 20 songs that he initially wanted us to include, but these were the ones we all finally decided were best. Brendan did an incredible job, once he got the song titles from Levon, he had to select about nine or 10 different performances for each one of these titles, and then listen to every one of these and ran the three or four best past Levon, to make sure he was cool with it.”
Here Larry Campbell gives the backstory on each of the live performances:
“The Same Thing” (recorded Feb. 14, 2009, Levon Helm, vocals): We’d been doing that song for a while and it turned out to be a great show opener. When Levon’s singing was on, it was just magical. Jimmy Vivino is playing slide guitar on this, and Mike Merritt was on bass that night. The song always just set a great mood to start the evening, so we figured we’d start the record with it.
“Ain’t That Good News” (August 28, 2010, Amy Helm, vocals): We had been doing this one for a long time, and Amy still does it with her band. She brought the tune to us when we were sitting back in the living room one night. It’s a Sam Cooke tune. We just went out and performed it one night without really working on an arrangement and it just evolved. The first time, we did it without the horns, then after a few shows, the horns started chiming in, and Levon’s drum groove on that is mind-blowing. He just makes it sound so good.
“God Don’t Ever Change” (January 10, 2009, Jimmy Vivino, vocals): Jimmy brought in this Blind Willie Johnson song. We did an acoustic version in Levon’s living room before a show one night, and he sang it fabulously. I picked up a mandolin, Mike Merritt played bass, Amy and Teresa chimed in and it just worked out great, definitely one of our better performances.
“Drivin’ Wheel” (May 16, 2009, Levon Helm, vocals): Levon had been trying to remember this Junior Parker song for a long time. I remember him saying, we’ve got to do it, and it just came back to him. We ran through it briefly in the back room and then just went out and played it. Levon had a real affinity for just about any Junior Parker tune. He sang it like he owned it.
“I’m a Jealous Man” (January 31, 2009, Larry Campbell, vocals): That’s an A.C. Reed song. Levon loved playing this tune because it was just a straight-edge blues shuffle and nobody could make a shuffle feel as good as he could. There are some people who can do it just as well, but no one better. I had been doing this song with Levon since the Rambles started and it’s just a fun song to throw in when you want to lift the mood a bit. Playing a shuffle with that guy is like riding in a rocking chair, and for that experience alone, I would try to do that song as often as possible.
“Stagger Lee” (October 18, 2005, Little Sammy Davis, vocals): You know Sammy, he was present at the Rambles a lot, and Levon wanted him there to add some authenticity to the proceedings. Sammy knew every song in the book, but I think this might’ve been the only time he performed it. We found this recording and I like the way he sings it. It’s one of Levon’s favorite tunes. He really liked how Sammy did this one.
“Simple Twist of Fate” (March 14, 2009, Brian Mitchell, vocals): Brian is a great interpreter of other people’s material. He brought this in early on and we had been doing it for a while. We added a kind of New Orleans feel to this one and we all loved playing it. Brian’s one of a kind, and Levon just loved the subtle swagger of this song.
“One More Shot” (December 9, 2006, Levon Helm vocals): This was one of the first songs I played with Levon when the Rambles first started. We opened the show with it. It was written by English songwriter Paul Kennerley for The Legend of Jesse James, a concept album Levon did with Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris. This is one of those songs he had to have on the album.
“Turn Around” (May 9, 2009, Teresa Williams, vocals): This is a Carl Perkins tune, one of the first songs he ever wrote and recorded. I loved it and, when I was out with Bob Dylan, I was invited to a release party and heard this tune. One night after a ramble, Brendan was playing some MP3s and this song came on. I said, “I’d love to hear Teresa sing this,” so I brought it to her and she just hit it out of the park, really killed it. Levon just loved hearing her sing country songs like this one.
“The Beautiful Lie” (January 3, 2009, Amy Helm, Teresa Williams, Fiona McBain, vocals): Amy was listening to one of Dolly Parton’s albums and played this song off the record for me, and we decided to do it as an a cappella tune. She, Teresa and Fiona worked it out and at one point I was playing fiddle behind it, but it was just so pretty, I dropped out because they didn’t need it. “You got it figured out,” I said. They killed that one.
“A Certain Girl” (January 1, 2007, Allen Toussaint, vocals): Allen sporadically joined in with us, and he would always do this song with the band. What a gentleman. It was always a joy and a treat when he came around. He had a great vibe and great music for us to play. He and Levon go way back, of course, to The Last Waltz and before that. They loved each other.
“Shake Your Money Maker” (August 23, 2008, Chris Robinson, vocals): Chris is always a firecracker up there, but the Crowes had just recorded their Cabin Fever album at the Barn around this time. I think this might’ve been the week before or after and Chris was still around. We wanted to get him up to sing a song, and Levon was all for it. He loved the way Chris did it. That show as a lot of fun.
“Take Me to the River” (February 10, 2007, Levon Helm, vocals): Great song done by a great singer and a great musician. If I’m on a desert island, do I take Levon’s version or Al Green’s? Now it’s settled because I played on Levon’s version.
Each track hand-picked by Levon who also designed the cover art, The Midnight Ramble Sessions Vol.3 continues to solidify Helm’s
legacy as a revered musical force.