Levon Helm

Electric Dirt

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In a musical career that has spanned six decades, Levon Helm has made more than a few excellent albums working with other folks -- most notably as drummer and vocalist with the Band, as well as backing Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Muddy Waters, John Martyn, Rufus Wainwright, and literally dozens of others. But as a solo artist, Helm's record has been considerably spottier, with well-intended disappointments outnumbering genuine successes, so it's good to report that at the age of 69, Helm has found his second wind as a recording artist, cutting two of his most satisfying solo sets in a row. Following 2007's excellent Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt is every bit as impressive and finds him sounding even stronger than he did on that comeback set. Dirt Farmer was Helm's first album after a bout with throat cancer nearly silenced him, and his vocals sounded firmly committed but just a bit strained; two years on, Helm's voice is nearly as supple as it was during his days with the Band, and even when it shows signs of wear and tear, his sense of phrasing and his ability to bring the characters in these songs to life are as good as they've ever been. While Dirt Farmer leaned toward acoustic music in the Appalachian tradition, Electric Dirt aims for a broader and more eclectic sound; "Golden Bird" sounds as if it could have been gleaned from the Harry Smith anthology, but the opening cover of the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed" swings with a solid New Orleans groove like an outtake from the Rock of Ages concerts, a pair of Muddy Waters numbers are subtle but passionate acoustic blues, "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free" is joyous gospel-infused R&B, and "White Dove" is fervent and heartfelt traditional country. Larry Campbell, who co-produced Dirt Farmer, returned for these sessions, as did most of the same band, bringing a similarly organic touch to the music, and the bigger sound of this album seems to suit everyone involved, with Helm's drumming sounding especially lively and well-grounded. And though Helm only wrote two songs for this album, they're two good ones, especially "Growin' Trade," a tale of an aging farmer who has taken to raising marijuana, and what could easily have been played as a joke is a moving account of one man's conscience as it wrestles with his heritage and love of the land. Not unlike his old buddy Bob Dylan from Time Out of Mind onward, Levon Helm seems to have rediscovered his knack for making great records in what some might have imagined would be the latter days of his career; Electric Dirt sounds fresh, emphatic, and as effective as anything Levon has cut since the mid-'70s, and one can only hope he has a few more discs in him just this good.

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