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 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” helped The Band become critically acclaimed while selling millions of albums, ultimately being inducted into The Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1994.
He now spends most of his time at his Woodstock farm with occasional excursions for touring. He holds his own concerts called Midnight Rambles at the farm, attracting such artists as Elvis Costello, Garth Hudson, Norah Jones, Emmylou Harris, Donald Fagen, and Allen Toussaint. The public is cordially invited.
Dirt Farmer, issued in 2007, was his first studio release since 1982 and won The Grammy Award 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 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 blues. His voice seems to have recovered from his bout with throat cancer and is the perfect vehicle to covey these stories of joy, wisdom, struggle, and mortality.
He only co-wrote two of the eleven tracks but they are both very strong. I can say with a great deal of assurance that “Heaven’s Pearls” will make my list of top songs for the year. It is a rock song with a structured beat and its lyrics fit a man approaching seventy who has dealt with his own mortality. It is a reflective and philosophical treatise about accepting death which ultimately allows the listener, and hopefully the composer, to find peace. Helm's other co-written song, “Growing Trade,” is an ode to the struggling small farmer.
He travels in a number of directions for the remaining nine tracks. 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 Toussaint's horn arrangements enhance the feeling. The Grateful Dead song, “Tennessee Jed,” is given a rousing and countrified rendition.
He 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 fit the style of this album better. Helm 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.