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Levon Helm - Electric Dirt

Levon Helm

Electric Dirt


That Levon Helm’s musical ramble is still at a full-steam-ahead pace is impressive feat on its own, but it holds even more weight when you consider the whole backstory. Helping alter the course of popular music with the five-headed rock and roots monolith The Band—from backing Dylan to their own string of majestic landmark records—Helm’s steady-handed backbeat and lively, unmistakable Arkansas drawl were a driving force, always near the center of it all.

When that distinctive, rough-hewn instrument was almost destroyed by throat cancer and the ensuing laryngectomy in the late 1990s, it seemed that Helm’s rich voice would be perhaps snuffed out forever. Then word began to spread from the “Ramble” concerts—homespun hootenannies in his Woodstock, New York barn—that Helm was trying to sing again. The 2007 release of Dirt Farmer not only showed the world he’d regained his voice but proved another high-water point in Levon’s illustrious legend. Dirt Farmer’s raw and beautiful rural blues won plenty of acclaim and even a Grammy.

Even sweeter in that record’s wake is that, after waiting almost a quarter century between Dirt Farmer and his previous solo album, here’s another from Levon barely a year later. Under the direction of esteemed multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, Electric Dirt collects a series of traditional songs, covers, and a few originals for a down-home, country-blues-folk pastiche. Not only is Helm’s voice back, it is arguably as good as it has ever been—well-worn and older but still evincing the majestically gritty, note-perfect shine it always had.

The tracks here are like dream list of material that light every corner of Helm’s musical persona and strike gold for what he and his band are able to do. Alongside a couple from Helm favorite Muddy Waters (“Stuff You Gotta Watch,, “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had”) are wonderfully refigured versions of Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” and Staple Singers’ “Move Along Train,” and The Stanley Brothers “White Dove.” Randy Newman’s “Kingfish” is in perfect hands here, as Helm tears into this epic about the Louisiana pol. The haunting ballad “Golden Bird” is bathed in Campbell’s fiddle and Helm and daughter/regular collaborator Amy’s almost otherworldly harmonies. Campbell—who spent a stretch as Bob Dylan’s guitar foil—penned the powerhouse “When I Go Away,” which sounds like a latter-era tune from his former boss, and here is given a revival tent, testifying verve. Billy Taylor’s civil rights paean “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” closes the album out with soaring gospel joy.

Levon Helm doesn’t need to anything to further his mighty musical legacy, but with Electric Dirt he’s artfully managed to do so again.

donny kutzbach

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