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Music Review: Levon Helm – Electric Dirt

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This CD is one of those that makes me wish. Wish for the days of album covers, which was how I bought a lot of the records I did back in the day. I’d go into a record shop, “I’ll be right back, Hon, just gotta run in and pick up this new Doors record.” Then, 45 minutes and a basketful of dollars lighter, I’d walk out with an armload. I couldn’t pass up the covers.

I have to say, though, that seeing the cover art for Helm’s second CD – and his second time around – was sooo reminiscent of the late 1960s-early 1970s, when “underground” artists began making a huge splash nationwide. Remember Crumb? R. Crumb? Robert Crumb? Robert “Keep On Trucking!” Crumb? Robert “Fritz The Cat” Crumb? Robert “Mr Natural” Crumb? Robert “The Cover of Janis’s Cheap Thrills Album” Crumb?

Back around 1972, I think, Crumb did a series of paintings, the 12 paintings becoming one interlocking painting. It was called “A Short History of America,” and featured 12 paintings, all done from the perspective of the exact same spot, over an indeterminate period of time.

Many places, but especially those which became the Industrial Belt, were jumping in population year after year, and Chicago went from being a landing spot for Père Marquette meeting the Native Americans who lived there, to being the third largest city in the US. The area went from “a place you can see miles and miles of miles,” nothing but open rolling countryside, forests and meadows, creeks and rivers, as far as the eye could see, to today’s Megalopolis.

Well, that’s what Crumb’s painting, and this album cover, remind me of. I guess I, and thousands of others, miss a fair amount of good CDs due to the loss of cover art, or at least cover art that can be seen without a magnifying glass. Anyway, this CD is good enough to buy for just the artwork. But the music … ahhh, the music!

Levon Helm, for those of you born this morning, was the drummer and lead singer of the group known as The Band. They took their name from their time touring with Bob Dylan. They were always introduced as Bob Dylan and the band, ergo the name. Their music is a mix of folk, country and bluegrass, with a little rock thrown in. Alt-country and country-rock before the terms were ever coined. And they were a supergroup of their day, quitting at the top of their game. If there’s any doubt in your mind about that, pick up their last four-disc set, The Last Waltz, and listen to the guest musicians who were jockeying to be allowed to play on The Band’s final album. The price is very reasonable, too.

Electric Dirt is every bit as good as anything The Band ever did, except now it’s only Levon Helm and a different group of musicians. But the musicianship, talent and ability are proved by the sellout crowds at literally every appearance. And oh yeah, there’s the Grammy that his first comeback CD won. And as Helm himself says, the fact that he was simply alive and healthy enough to make "Dirt Farmer" is "a celebration" in itself. The first cut on Electric Dirt, “Tennessee Jed,” is a kickass beginning to a kickass CD. It’s a heavily country-tinged slow rocker that’s your invitation to get on your feet and move around the dance floor. It’s an invitation that can’t be ignored – you can’t help but feel good just listening to the first few bars.

From there, the CD moves into “Move Along Train,” a slow shuffle that moves your spirit as much as the first cut moved your body. Every cut on this disc meets the same exacting standards that those put out by The Band did some 30 years ago. Some that grabbed me for one reason or another were “Stuff You Gotta Watch,” and “King Fish,” a swipe at former governor of Louisiana done in New Orleans style. The King Fish, Long’s nickname, will be rolling in his grave. “When I Go Away” is a spiritual blues-rocker that lifts you gently up, dances you around the floor, and sits you back down, effortlessly. It’s a real pick-me-up, feel-good number. The ninth cut, “Heaven’s Pearls,” is a slow, contemplative sort of gospel number, while the final cut is another jump-up-and-race-around-the-dance-floor number.

If you like Levon and his style of music, be sure to log on to his website and check out his upcoming shows and “Midnight Rambles,” as he tags them. These Rambles are held at Helm’s home studio, which also has a fair-sized space for an audience. Except since his Grammy last year, they often sell out quite quickly, so be sure to get on his mailing list, too, and sign up early.

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About Lou Novacheck