CD Review of Electric Dirt by Levon Helm
Levon Helm: Electric Dirt
Recommended if you like
The Band, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan
Vanguard/Dirt Farmer
Levon Helm: Electric Dirt

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


t took Levon Helm a quarter of a century to complete his last solo effort, 2007’s Dirt Farmer, but the time off seems to have put an extra spring in his step – here it is, only two years later, and he’s back with a follow-up, the appropriately titled Electric Dirt. Beset by a number of daunting setbacks in recent years, among them bankruptcy and a bout with throat cancer that nearly silenced his distinctive vocals forever, Helm appears to finally be hitting his stride as a solo artist; despite his years away from the spotlight, the Grammy-winning Dirt Farmer sold an impressive 129,000 units, and his place in the rock ‘n’ roll legends’ circle (albeit in one of the more underappreciated, less well-known outer rings) has turned his series of Midnight Ramble concerts, held at his home in Woodstock, NY, into a favored destination for famous names including Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Allen Toussaint, Emmylou Harris, and Dr. John.

Electric Dirt is not, regrettably, a Midnight Ramble-style party on record, but it does represent a logical next step for Helm, who reached back to his roots for Dirt Farmer. Where that album was mostly acoustic, and consisted largely of traditional songs Helm remembered from his youth, Electric lives up to its title, plugging into a more expansive sound that touches on his Arkansas upbringing (the farmer’s lament "Growing Trade") as well as some of the spicier flavors of Americana he sampled during his years with the Band (including the Grateful Dead cover "Tennessee Jed" and a stomping take on Randy Newman’s "Kingfish," featuring horn arrangements by Toussaint).

It’s a rollicking good time, in other words, and though it won’t come close to supplanting the Band’s classic records in your collection, it does provide a deeply satisfying addendum to a discography that was dormant for too long (and seemed destined to end prematurely). Though not a classically beautiful singer, Helm’s got soul to spare, and it’s always such a pleasure to hear him howling behind his drum kit that it’s easy to forgive a certain amount of subpar material. Fortunately, that isn’t a problem here; Helm and producer Larry Campbell (who also helmed Dirt Farmer) have written and chosen a solid block of songs that highlight all the shades of his colorfully craggy artistic personality, from mournful ballads like the piercing "Golden Bird" to rousing up-tempo numbers like the cover of Muddy Waters’ "Stuff You Gotta Watch" (already covered, incidentally, by the reconstituted Band for 1993’s Jericho). In terms of production, performance, and material, it’s arguably the best thing Helm’s ever recorded as a solo performer – not bad for a guy who couldn’t sing at all six years ago. Here’s hoping he doesn’t slow down for a good long while.

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