Levon Helm - Electric Dirt

Levon Helm
Electric Dirt

(Dirt Farmer/Vanguard)

First Appeared in The Music Box, September 2009, Volume 16, #9

Written by John Metzger

Thu September 10, 2009, 06:15 AM CDT


In the wake of Rick Dankoís death in 1999, the surviving members of The Band quietly went their separate ways. Garth Hudson issued a handful of low-key solo sets before settling into life as a hired hand, while Levon Helm focused his attention on The Barn Burners, a solidly satisfying but ultimately underwhelming blues-based outfit that he had founded several years earlier with his daughter Amy. Helmís gambit never really took flight, though, partially because throat cancer had robbed him of his voice. For a while, it seemed almost certain that The Bandís glory days were gone for good.

Not surprisingly, Helmís recovery was a long, slow process, but reinvigorated by his brush with death, he began holding a series of regular concerts on his property in Woodstock. This led directly to the recording of Dirt Farmer, his first solo effort in 25 years. More often than not, the album fared quite well, as Helm delved into the sorts of roots-oriented song structures that had fueled The Bandís output for decades. Still, it was clear that Helmís ordeal had left him in a weakened state. Although Dirt Farmer signaled that a full-fledged comeback was a possibility, the collection hardly provided an indication that it was lurking just around the next bend.

Where Dirt Farmer was a triumph for Levon Helm, the cancer survivor, its sequel Electric Dirt is, without a doubt, a triumph for Levon Helm, the recording artist. By blending together a wealth of styles that range from folk to blues, gospel to country, and bluegrass to soul, the collection traverses the same Americana-bred terrain as its predecessor. Yet, the amplified instrumentation combined with Helmís forcefully emotive vocal delivery gives Electric Dirt an enthralling sense of urgency that is too great to ignore. In effect, the frailty that had clung so tightly to Dirt Farmer has been swept away, making it sound as if Helm and producer Larry Campbell merely had been testing the waters when they pieced together the earlier endeavor.

Electric Dirtís highlights come early and often. The steamy, gospel-blues hue of The Staple Singersí Move Along Train is given a weary but determined ambience, and spiced by an Allen Toussaint-arranged horn section, Helmís brawny rendition of the Grateful Deadís Tennessee Jed sounds like a lost classic from his days with The Band. Filled with a mixture of regret and compassionate understanding, Growing Trade relays a tale about the plight of American farmers, one that mirrors the melted dreams of a country that has become mired in financial distress and the moral dilemmas that come with it.

Electric Dirtís momentum dips slightly when, halfway through the endeavor, Helm settles into a series of comfortable blues tunes, namely Stuff You Gotta Watch and You Canít Lose What You Ainít Never Had. Fortunately, they are surrounded by some other first-rate tracks. Randy Newmanís King Fish, for example, is slathered in brassy inebriation. Meanwhile, a punchy rendition of I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free as well as Campbellís delightful When I Go Away ó which boasts a salvation-seeking, gospel-embracing coda ó serve as celebrations of life after death. Through every aspect of Electric Dirt ó from its lyrics to its music ó Helm sends a simple message: He isnít afraid to die, but for all of the troubles that are thrown his way, he isnít ready to pack his bags yet either. starstarstarstar


52nd Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Americana Album


Of Further Interest...

Randy Newman - The Best of Randy Newman / The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1

Tom Russell - Modern Art

Various Artists - The Gift: A Tribute to Ian Tyson


Electric Dirt is available from
Barnes & Noble. To order, Click Here!



1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


Copyright © 2009 The Music Box