Electric Dirt

Levon Helm

Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard Records, 2009


REVIEW BY: David Bowling


Levon Helm is now a grandfather just about four months shy of seventy years old – plus he is a cancer survivor. He was also the drummer and co-lead vocalist for one of the most legendary bands in rock ‘n’ roll history. His vocals on such songs as “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and countless others helped The Band become critically acclaimed, sell millions of albums, and be inducted into The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994.

Helm now spends most of his time at his Woodstock farm, taking occasional excursions for touring. He holds his own concerts called Midnight Rambles at the farm and has attracted such artists as Elvis Costello, Garth Hudson, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Donald Fagan, and Allen Toussaint. The public is cordially invited as well.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Dirt Farmer, issued in 2007, was his first studio release since 1982, and it won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. He returned in June of 2009 with Electric Dirt, which became a commercial success, reaching number 36 on the Billboard Magazine album charts.

This is an album that tells stories of the land and the people who inhabit it. Helm’s mournful and soulful voice brings these stories to life through gospel, soul, rock, and the blues. His voice seems to have recovered from his bout with throat cancer and is the perfect vehicle to convey these stories of joy, wisdom, struggle, and mortality.

He only co-wrote two of the eleven tracks here, but both are very strong. I can say with a great deal of assurance that “Heaven’s Pearls” will make my list of top songs of the year. It is a rock song with a structured beat. The lyrics are fitting of a man approaching seventy who has dealt with issues of mortality. It is a reflective and philosophical treatise about accepting death, which ultimately allows the listener – and hopefully, the composer – to find peace. Meanwhile, his second self-penned track “Growing Trade” is a poignant ode to the struggling small farmer.

Helm travels in a number of directions for the remaining nine cuts. Very few people could pull off The Staples Singers’ “Move Along Train.” His voice is made for this gospel tune ,and the use of female background singers provides a nice touch. Randy Newman’s “Kingfish” is right out of a New Orleans saloon, and Allen Toussaints horn arrangements enhance the feeling. The Grateful Dead song, “Tennessee Jed,” is given a rousing and countrified rendition on this disc.

Helm goes in a straight blues direction with two Muddy Waters tunes. “Stuff You Gotta Watch” and “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had” were originally cut during the Dirt Farmer sessions but they fit the style of this album better. The album concludes on a joyful and inspirational note with “I Wish I Knew How It Feels To Be Free.”

Electric Dirt is a brilliant album from an old rock ‘n’ roll master. Let’s hope there are a lot more to come.

Rating: A

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© 2010 David Bowling and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard Records, and is used for informational purposes only.