First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2007, Volume 14, #10
Written by John Metzger
Sun October 28, 2007, 08:40 AM CDT
Nearly a decade ago, it appeared as if Levon Helm might never be able to sing again. After being diagnosed with throat cancer, he underwent surgery and subsequently received a lengthy series of radiation treatments that left him largely unable to speak. Although he returned to the stage in 2000, playing drums with the blues-based group The Barn Burners, Helm wanted to be able to do more. Returning to his Woodstock home, he rebuilt his recording studio, which had been leveled by a raging inferno, and two years ago, he began hosting a biweekly gathering for friends, neighbors, and anyone else who wanted to drop by. Chips and salsa were served along with homemade cookies for dessert. Billed as Levon Helm’s Midnight Ramble, the shows were intimate and low-key affairs that allowed him to pay the bills and make progress toward regaining his voice.
Dirt Farmer, Helm’s first solo outing in a quarter century, is a direct outgrowth of his Midnight Ramble concerts. With help from Buddy and Julie Miller, Teresa Williams, former Dylan sideman Larry Campbell, and members of Ollabelle — including his daughter Amy — Helm uses the set to delve deeply into his Southern heritage. Mixing traditional and contemporary fare, he embraces the down-home, roots-oriented, acoustic twang of old-school folk, though his rock ’n‘ roll heart also is never far from reach.
There’s no question that Helm’s voice has been diminished by his experiences. Yet, on Dirt Farmer, he still succeeds in giving a miraculous performance. Set against the cry of a fiddle, he fills Little Birds with a mournful presence, for example, and his roughed-up drawl lends Steve Earle’s The Mountain an air of honest realism. Throughout the set, Helm not only finds new ways of expressing himself, but he also fully understands his limitations. Whenever he is at his weakest — whenever he seems to strain the most — his backing vocalists surround him and pick up the slack. The gospel flair that they add to the proceedings, however, doesn’t just mask his deficiencies; it gives him the strength to carry on.
It helps considerably, of course, that the music and the arrangements on Dirt Farmer are all first-rate. Although the songs stylistically touch upon the same slate of influences that once pervaded Helm’s work with The Band, the material is rendered with a rustic, earthy touch that taps into something that is considerably older. Whether covering tunes by A.P. Carter (Single Girl, Married Girl) or J.B. Lenoir (Feelin’ Good), whether singing of loneliness (The Girl I Left Behind) or hard times (Poor Old Dirt Farmer), Helm sounds like he always has: emotionally pure and spiritually moving. Dirt Farmer, then, is merely a continuation of his decades-long mission to capture the essence of the old, weird America and keep it alive for a new generation of fans. Once again, Helm’s gambit is fruitful, which makes his resurrection all the more triumphant. ˝
50th Annual Grammy Award Winner:
Best Traditional Folk Album
Of Further Interest...
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2007 The Music Box