On a pair of two new concert recordings, two masterful Americana stylists representing successive generations take different routes through and around the music that has defined their careers over the decades.
On Ramble at the Ryman, the great Levon Helm takes the famed Midnight Ramble jam sessions that he has popularized in his Woodstock, N.Y., barn studio to the cathedral of country music, Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. In keeping with Ramble tradition, several Music City-and-more luminaries join in to give the performance a stately party atmosphere.
But for Not So Loud, from Missouri road warriors The Bottle Rockets, the mood is even looser — lighter, even — in an all-acoustic outing that sacrifices none of the band's barroom edge.
Of course, just having Helm around for Ramble at the Ryman, given his battles over the past 15 years with throat cancer, is cause for celebration. And to be sure, that mighty Arkansas wail that Helm used to such expert effect in the late '60s and '70s with The Band presents itself here with a worn and raspy tone. But his singing is nonetheless sagely, soulful and highly serviceable.
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From the onset of the 1975 Band gem Ophelia, with its celebratory brass arrangement, the spirit of fun surrounding Ramble at the Ryman is undeniable, as is the ensemble drive fortified by daughter Amy Helm and drummer Tony Leone (of the fine new-generation Americana troupe Ollabelle) and veteran guitarist Larry Campbell. Their contributions help propel the Chuck Berry rock and soul of Back to Memphis and the luscious Cajun waltz of The Band's Evangeline (the latter with Sheryl Crow sitting in).
The Band nuggets are a blast, but the highlights are three tunes pulled from Helm's Grammy-winning 2007 album, Dirt Farmer. From that lot, the show stealer is the quietly righteous Wide River to Cross. Helm leaves the vocal lead to the song's co-composer, Buddy Miller. But the ensuing country mingling of brass and fiddle proves Ramble at the Ryman rocks even when the tempo and temperaments are chilled.
Not So Loud might seem like a curve ball, especially at this stage in the nearly two-decade career of The Bottle Rockets. After all, this was a band that once positioned itself to be a '90s Midwestern graduate from the Lynyrd Skynyrd school of Southern rock mischief. But the album lets the country-folk foundations of Brian Henneman's songs modestly rock out, starting with an intriguing clawhammer banjo reading of Early in the Morning. The fun sails right through to the rugged country sweep of Turn for the Worse and the crisply bittersweet Kerosene.
In its own way, the music is electric in terms of vitality. It's just that the songs ignite with a slower and more deliberate flame than before.