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Music Review: Levon Helm – Electric Dirt

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One of the catchphrases of the sixties was ‘back to the land.’ Disenchanted with rampant materialism, hippies in droves sought both a lifestyle and music that reflected ideas and ideals rooted in simpler times. Few outfits of the era were as influential as The Band, a bunch of Canadians and an American (that’d be drummer Levon Helm) who explored the vast tapestry of roots music in a rock context.

Helm, now in his late sixties (he was born in 1940), battled throat cancer a few years back, a case so severe doctors were sure he’d never sing again. What he’s lost as a singer, though, he’s gained as an oracle. Like Bob Dylan, like Ralph Carter, Helm’s voice is nothing less than the craggy sound of centuries of song, as honest and true as … well, dirt. There’s nothing elegant about it, unless it’s the unadorned elegance of human dignity and utterly unshakable integrity.

Helm’s 2006 release, Dirt Farmer, found him exploring primarily acoustic music that seemed rooted in the very soil of America, a sympathetic paean to the people closest to the land itself. Electric Dirt takes up where Dirt Farmer left off, though the music is just as resolutely rootsy. Material is a bit more eclectic this time out, with covers including takes on the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” and Randy Newman’s typically acerbic “King Fish,” with its distinctive New Orleans swagger.

Also included are a pair of Muddy Waters tunes (“Stuff You Got To Watch” and “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had”). The former is a loping shuffle, powered by accordion and featuring sing-along choruses, while the latter employs mandolin as lead instrument; they’re both atypical treatments that work exceptionally well. (Helm played on The Muddy Waters Woodstock Album, an unusual one-off from 1975 that found Waters backed by, among others, The Band’s Garth Hudson on accordion).

Despite – or perhaps because of – his triumph over illness, mortality is much on Helm’s mind. “Move Along Train” finds him waiting to be ‘carried home,’ while elsewhere there’s the uplifting faith of “When I Go Away” and the darkly fatalistic “Heaven’s Pearls.” The disc ends with a rousing “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” a civil-rights anthem delivered here with joyous abandon.

Helm and returning producer Larry Campbell, who also contributes a dizzying array of stringed instruments, wrote “Growing Trade,” an anthemic ode to the plight of today’s farmers, and old friend and fellow Woodstock resident Happy Traum contributed “Golden Bird.” The former sounds like a lost classic from The Band, while the latter, with it’s stripped down fiddle-fuelled arrangement, sounds as though it’s been handed down for centuries.

Helm won a Grammy for Dirt Farmer, and this outing, featuring the same supporting team, is a logical and delightful continuation of his ongoing interest in American music. There might be a few more electric instruments this time out, but the overall feel remains thoroughly organic, a celebration of the simple and enduring power of song.

Utterly essential!

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