“Electric Dirt” by Levon Helm

Levon Helm
Electric Dirt
Vanguard Records
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

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“King Wilkie Presents: The Wilkie Family Singers” by King Wilkie

King Wilkie
King Wilkie Presents: The Wilkie Family Singers
Casa Nueva Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Named for Bill Monroe’s favorite horse, King Wilkie made a spectacular traditional bluegrass album Broke in 2004 and was rewarded with the Emerging Artist of the Year award from the International Bluegrass Music Association.

In 2007, the Charlottesville sextet expanded their sound and turned in the near-masterpiece acoustic country-rock Low Country Suite.

By 2008, however, the group had all but disbanded, leaving singer, songwriter, mandolinist and multi-instrumentalist Reid Burgess in possession of the band’s name and, apparently, a head full of ideas that ran even further afield than Low Country Suite.

“Moon and Sun,” a loose sing-along featuring Burgess, guitarist Steve Lewis and guest Abigail Washburn, is an appropriately collegial kick-off for a disc entitled The Wilkie Family Singers.

It gives way to “Goodbye Rose,” a Beatle-esque tune with Burgess on yearning lead vocal and bouncy piano, which in turn leads into the Pet Sounds-influenced “Videotape,” which features guest backing vocals and guitar from Robyn Hitchcock.

“Same Water” is a gritty, bluesy interlude from Lewis and guest David Bromberg on slide guitar before a return to Burgess’ pop experiments, namely the 1950s-style love ballad “Sweet Dreams” and the sweet “Symbaline,” which sounds like something the Kinks could have done in a gentler moment.

No one sings a mournful song quite like Peter Rowan, who makes Burgess’ “Railroad Town” the most emotional song on the CD.

Lewis and Bromberg are back on the rustic “Hey Old Man” before Burgess takes us back to the 1960s with the “Yellow Submarine”-like drug song “Dr. Art.”

“Orange Creme Houses” is another gorgeous piano ballad from Burgess, and a perfect set-up for Lewis’ anthemic “Take It Underground,” the project’s most memorable track.

The album ends with “Sun and Moon,” a book-end to the opening track with the addition of John McEuen on banjo.

Though there’s a lot going on here, it all hangs together in a strange way and is a fine album to accompany a lonely Saturday afternoon or even a Wes Anderson movie. And it’s certainly good enough to make you want to hear what else Burgess, Lewis and friends can come up with.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo” by Steve Martin

Steve Martin
The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo
Rounder Records
4.5 stars (out of 5)

It’s hard to imagine too many people more talented than Steve Martin. Not only is he a great actor and comedian, but he’s written a couple of works of fiction and has never given up his life-long fascination with that most personable of all instruments, the banjo.

The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo isn’t exactly that, since some of these compositions are nearly 40 years old, but the tunes are all good, as Martin, who wrote 14 and co-wrote one of the 16 tracks here, has, along with a fine technique for both clawhammer and Scruggs-style playing, an unerring ear for melodies that are insistent and beautiful.

“Hoedown at Alice’s,” “Tin Roof,” “Words Unspoken,” and “Blue River Waltz” fit into that insistently beautiful category, while “The Crow,” “Pitkin County Turnaround” and “Wally on the Run” are upbeat and cheery.

“Freddie’s Lilt” is an open-D tune with Celtic instrumentation that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Chieftains record. “Banana Banjo” amazingly works as a wacky banjo tune with a lush string backing. “Saga of the Old West,” replete with plenty of hammer-ons and pull-offs, could have been used as the theme for HBO’s western series “Deadwood.”

Martin is also fortunate to have the friends he does. Tim O’Brien sings and banjo godfather Earl Scruggs plays on the wryly nostalgic opening track “Daddy Played the Banjo,” while Vince Gill and Dolly Parton duet on the beguiling “Pretty Flowers” and Irish icon Mary Black brings her ethereal vocals to “Calico Train.”

And with other gusts including multi-instrumentalist John McEuen, Tony Trischka (banjo) and Pete Wernick (banjo) and a house band that includes Russ Barenburg (guitar), Jerry Douglas (Dobro), Stuart Duncan (fiddle and mandolin), Craig Eastman (fiddle, octave violin), Matt Flinner (mandolin), Brittany Haas (fiddle), it’s no wonder that, as the liner notes boast, this is the most expensive banjo album ever made.

It’s also irrepressibly charming and one of the most enjoyable albums of any type that’s been released this year.

by Aaron Keith Harris

“In God’s Time” by Barry Scott & Second Wind

Barry Scott & Second Wind
In God’s Time
Rebel Records
4 stars (out of 5)

It may be a bit unusual for a bluegrass band’s initial recording to be a gospel effort, but this recording by Barry Scott & Second Wind not only serves as a debut but also as a vehicle to show off the instrumental and vocal prowess of this band still in its infancy.

Barry Scott is an alumnus of the Doyle Lawson school of bluegrass and this shows in the tight harmonies and sometimes understated instrumentation. Barry served as lead vocalist for Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver for nine years before branching out on his own.

From the up tempo numbers, “Take A Moment And Live” to the more country-oriented tunes like “The Only Thing That Matters” this is a first-rate CD. Well produced by Barry Scott and the band, this CD will stand up well and should receive some attention for gospel project of the year at the various bluegrass award shows.

The a cappella number “A Glorified Body” is a showcase for the group’s ability to sing strong, close harmony. I guess every reviewer should have a favorite song on a project and mine is “Oh What A Day”. This number moves along quite well and is still able to allow the vocals to shine.

“In God’s Time” features a number of high-powered guests such as Vince Gill, Kenny Smith, and Ron Inscore to mention a few. I think the band stands alone very well but you can’t go wrong with the addition of such legendary performers.

Barry Scott & Second Wind are Barry Scott on guitar and lead vocal, Jason Leek on bass and vocal, Matthew Munsey on mandolin and vocal, Travis Houck on Dobro and vocal, and Zane Petty on banjo. Put it all together and it makes for a great sound.

by Charlie W. Hansen

“Destination Life” by Rhonda Vincent

Rhonda Vincent
Destination Life
Rounder Records
4 stars (out of 5)

Flaunting plenty of cleavage, Rhonda Vincent reclines on a pool table on the back cover of her latest CD, Destination Life. It’s the latest in a series of, shall we say, fashion-forward moves that have raised eyebrows amongst bluegrass music’s more conservative fans. One hopes, though, that those fans realize that Vincent, whatever her wardrobe, remains at the top of the list of today’s traditional-leaning female bluegrass and country singers.

Though Vincent leans to the traditional side, the nods to tradition on this disc are not too plenty: a Latin-flavored take on the Patsy Cline hit “Stop the World (and Let Me off),” which features a knockout fiddle break from Hunter Berry; the gospel quartet co-written by Vincent “I Hear My Savior Calling Me;” the soaring a cappella gospel of “When I Travel My Last Mile;” and an instrumental version of “Eighth of January,” which features some fine mandolin work by Vincent.

The rest of the song roster is filled with great contemporary bluegrass songs from good writers, the kind you’re not surprised to find on an album by an artist of Vincent’s stature.

“Last Time Loving You,” “Heart Wrenching Lovesick Memories,” “Anywhere is Home When You’re With Me,” and “What a Woman Wants to Hear” are all up-tempo toe-tappers driven by Aaron McDaris’ banjo and anchored by Mickey Harris’ upright bass.

Where Vincent shines brightest, though, is on mid-tempo numbers like the bluesy “I Can Make Him Whisper I Love You,” the confident “Crazy Love” (not the Van Morrison song), the honky-tonk flavored duet with guitartist Ben Helson “Crazy What a Lonely Heart Will Do,” and the title track, a song about “clinging to what dignity is still intact” after a bad relationship.

Vincent’s emotion and talent puts each track across in style, making this another fine effort from one of bluegrass music’s most consistent artists.

by Aaron Keith Harris