4.5 stars (out of 5)
The ascending guitar figures, the New Orleans-style horn stab, those unmistakable hands dropping stick to drum, then that voice, one of the most expansive, soulful and distinctly American in the history of recorded music.
That’s how the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” kicks of Levon Helm’s Electric Dirt, the follow-up to 2007’s Dirt Farmer, which won a Grammy for best traditional folk album.
Dirt Farmer was Helm’s first recorded effort since healing up from a bout of throat cancer that had left him nearly voiceless. Helm sounded almost as great as his days as drummer and sometimes lead vocalist for The Band on that album, but he was clearly straining. That strain is still barely present on Electric Dirt, giving it just that extra bit of grit that makes it such an irresistible listen.
The arrangements from producer and longtime Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell suit Helm’s voice comfortably and often draw upon the same vibe that The Band would have. “Tennessee Jed,” though more laid back, recalls some of the joyful abandon of The Band’s “Ophelia,” as does Randy Newman’s “Kingfish,” a celebratory biotune about the execrable Louisiana populist Huey Long.
Two Muddy Waters songs — “Stuff You Gotta Watch” and “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had” — have Helm growling and whooping like the great bluesman and would have fit right in on The Band’s tribute to their roots Moondog Matinee.
“White Dove” is a gorgeous remake of the Stanley Brothers’ bluegrass standard, with a slight melodic twist, full harmonies, and a bluesy fiddle; “Golden Bird” is arranged with Helm plaintively channeling a modern-day Ralph Stanley along with stark, then swelling, arrangement centered on an old-time fiddle line.
“I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to Be Free,” “Heaven’s Pearls,” the Staples “Move Along Train” and the stunning “When I Go Away” all have a strong gospel feel, reminding how much both black and white church music have given to rock ‘n’ roll.
The track I keep coming back to, the one that literally and actually sends chills down my spine, is “Growin’ Trade.” Written by Helm and Campbell it’s about a farmer whose “crops ain’t worth the seedin’” and thus turns to growing pot. Starting off with a similar acoustic guitar lick, it aspires to a similar downtrodden grandeur as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and indeed could be an update of that same Caine family several generations on. It’s a sensitve portrait of one of the thousands of victims of the insane War on Drugs, and there’s nothing better than Helm’s voice to paint it with.
And we should all be thankful that Helm is back and healthy enough to make such uplifting music.
by Aaron Keith Harris