The phrase “rock and roll survivor” can be applied to many people. Those who made it through the tumult of the ‘60s and needed a few new parts afterwards (see: Crosby, David), those who have weathered both disease and the deaths of fellow band members (see: Lesh, Phil, or Allman, Gregg), or just the assorted members of the Rolling Stones (see: Richards, Keith). And then there’s Levon Helm.
Helm was the keeper of the beat for The Band for over 30 years and anyone who has ever listened to classic rock radio for more than ten minutes is familiar with Levon’s raspy tenor. On classic tunes like “Up On Cripple Creek,” “Ophelia,” “The Weight,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” Helm and the other members of The Band (alongside Creedence Clearwater Revival) basically invented “roots rock” – aka: electrified folk and country music steeped in the musical traditions of the American South. The albums that The Band made, including “Music From Big Pink,” “The Band,” “Cahoots,” and “The Last Waltz” are stone classics, and the fact they were Bob Dylan’s backing band when he “went electric” makes Helm a major participant in one of the most important periods in rock history.
Fast-forward nearly 30 years to the late ‘90s, when Levon was diagnosed with throat cancer, and was told he may never sing again following surgery on his larynx. After years of recovery (partially financed by concerts given by Helm at his home in Woodstock, NY), Levon was finally able to sing again, and in 2007 released “Dirt Farmer,” which went on to win the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Now the follow-up album, “Electric Dirt” has arrived. Helm is joined once again by “The Master of the Things With Strings,” former Dylan guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, who also produced the record, as well as Byron Issacs on bass, and Brian Mitchell on the keys. “Electric Dirt” builds on the foundation of “Dirt Farmer,” but adds new elements like gospel and the blues (and a horn section!) to both the rock tunes as well as the more soulful ballads.
A fantastic cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” opens the album. To the best of my knowledge, the Dead never played the tune with horns as it is here, but it really shines. This is followed by a version of the Staples Singers’ “Move Along Train.” While Levon’s voice could not be any more different than the wonderful Mavis Staples’, the soul and passion shine through just as much. “Growing Trade,” which was co-written by Helm and Campbell, tells the story of a farmer who is trying to keep his family’s land in spite of all the hardships and obstacles. Tone wise, the song recalls the Band’s “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)” but musically, is slower and with greater emphasis on the acoustic guitar.
“Golden Bird” is a slow, fiddle-backed ballad that has the feel of a song written in the mid-1850s, but was actually written for this album. “White Dove” is an old Stanley Brothers bluegrass song, and Levon sings his heart out over it. While Randy Newman’s original version of “Kingfish” had strings and a full orchestral sound, Helm’s version is brassier and has a more zydeco feel, even recalling Little Feat.
The Muddy Waters’ tune “Stuff You Gotta Watch” takes the unplugged path, taking the Chicago electrified blues and dropping it down in the bayou with a little squeezebox and fiddle. Another Muddy Waters tune, “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had” replaces Water’s guitar with a mandolin, but the blues is the blues, and it works just fine. Both of the Waters tunes were originally recorded for “Dirt Farmer” but were dropped before the release. They fit much better here.
“When I Go Away” was written by Campbell for Levon. The rather up-tempo tune reflects how Helm is embracing his mortality, and how he doesn’t want any crying when he’s gone, because he’ll “… be leaving my troubles in the graveyard,” and reuniting with the ones he loves. “Heaven’s Pearls” was originally recorded by Ollabelle, which features Levon’s daughter Amy. The father and daughter duet on the track is one of the album’s highlights. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” is more up-tempo than the Nina Simone original, but makes a fitting cap to the record.
Now in his sixth decade of making music, Levon Helm has seen a lot. From the breakup of The Band, to the suicide of his bandmate Richard Manuel, to his own health problems, Levon just keeps on working. Ultimately, that is the message of this record: Bad times will come, but perseverance pays off in the end.
The Levon Helm Band tours the east coast through the summer, and the Midnight Rambles that Levon hosts at his home will continue on a nearly weekly basis through September and beyond. Tickets are available through www.levonhelm.com. “Electric Dirt” is available wherever records are sold.