4 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
Levon Helm is a survivor, an American icon. He grew up dirt poor on his daddy's farm in Arkansas, sustained by his love for blues and traditional music, and went on to become a member or The Band, one of music's most unique and respected groups. The Band featured three ill-fated lead singers: crooner/keyboardist Richard Manuel, whose expressive, wounded voice mirrored his troubled psyche; hiccupping bassist Rick Danko, the happy-go-lucky party boy, and drummer Mark Lavon "Levon" Helm, whose roguish drawl stamped many of the group's signature songs. Manuel was devoured by his demons - driven to suicide, Danko's abused body wore out, and Levon seemed ready to meet his maker when he contracted throat cancer.
Not only did Levon defeat the disease, he defied predictions he'd never sing again. Rising like a southern fried Lazarus, Levon resurrected his dormant solo career with 2007's Grammy Award winning "Dirt Farmer," an album in which he revisited his Arkansas roots through a collection of traditional country and blues.
In a tribute to his rural roots and as a way to honor one of his mentors, Muddy Waters, Levon has titled his second comeback album "Electric Dirt." Muddy once put out an album called "Electric Mud" (he didn't like it and called it "Electric S**t") but the pyschadelasized version of classic blues tunes introduced Muddy to a new generation of fans. "Electric Dirt" is bound to do the same for Levon, who many know as the dude with the cool Southern drawl in Tommy Lee Jones' movies rather than the man who held the beat for The Band. It's his best solo effort since his debut, "Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars" thirty-two years ago.
Levon has taken the concept of recording rural roots music a step further by turning up the amps and gussying the arrangements with some good ole Creole soul courtesy of Allen Toussaint and Steven Bernstein's horn arrangements, thus removing the veil of gloom that permeated "Dirt Farmer." The production, crisp and uncluttered, makes the songs sound as if they were cut live. Fans of The Band can rejoice - the writers Helm chose to supply material for "Electric Dirt" have the same magical talent for storytelling as The Band's chief composer, Robbie Robertson.
Toussaint put together the horn section for The Band's landmark live album "Rock of Ages," but it's Bernstein who makes the first cut, The Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed," sway. Levon's Arkansas twang was built for the Garcia/Hunter standard: "Betta git back ta Ten-a-see Jead."
Helm may not be a man of God, but the gospel according to Levon is in session with "Move Along Train," penned by pious Roebuck Staples. Levon mixes a shuffling groove with a Baptist feel and is assisted by daughter Amy Helm (a member of the folk group Ollabelle) and Campbell's spouse, Teresa Williams. Levon belts out his vocal like a grizzled preacher dipping his flock in the River of Jordan, and guest guitarist Jimmy Vivino (Musical Director for The Tonight Show Band), provides cutting 50's rockabilly fills. This train hits every stop on its way to glory.
Levon doesn't write much, but with the assistance of Larry Campbell, he put his dirt poor farmer's past into "Growin' Trade." With weeping strings and an acoustic guitar/mandolin/fiddle backdrop provided by Campbell, "Growin' Trade" resembles some of The Band's episodic folk tales about hard times in the back forty, such as "The Weight" or "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." "I guess he'd wonder what's the dignity in the crop you grow to burn, but this land is my legacy, I got nowhere else to turn... I used to farm for a livin', now I'm in the growin' trade."
Levon revisits his Appalachia roots in Happy Traum's "Golden Bird." There's a heavy turn of the century hillbilly feel supplied by fiddle, dulcimer, harmonium, and autoharp that gives "Golden Bird" an "Amazing Grace" sound. The fable follows a man chasing the flight of a bird, only to kill it with a stone because he's jealous of its freedom: "its beauty was such that I must have it." The spirit of the bird appears to him in a dream in the guise of a beautiful woman, who tells him: "Did not you know when you hurt me so cruelly, I was your love, and I was your friend? You couldn't stand that I was so free, now you'll never see me again." This would be a great track for a Ken Burns project if he ever does another Civil War documentary or a show about the Hatfields and the McCoys. Levon sings his heart out. His weathered voice, his pain and regret are fully exposed. I normally loathe country/hillbilly music, but "Golden Bird" is a shining moment.
"The Stuff You Gotta Watch" was one of the few clinkers on The Band's first comeback album, "Jericho." It was shuck and jive in overdrive, beneath The Band's storied legacy. Slowed to a more palatable shuffle, with Levon hitting the sweet spots, and singing with growling glee and with Brian Mitchell squeezing out knee-knocking riffs on accordion, this is great stuff.
Levon heads back to "the deep rolling hills of ole Virginia" in "White Dove." It's somewhere between an Oakie folk tune and a hymn. Brian Mitchell and Larry Campbell form a front porch band with Amy Helm, sawing on fiddles and mandolins. "White Dove" has a coal miner's storyline to it that's similar to The Band's "Jericho." It's the weakest track on the album, mainly because it's too couched in an archaic format, but it's still listenable.
Levon uses the grit in his gullet to swagger through Randy Newman's New Orleans inspired "Kingfish," a sarcastic swipe at Louisiana Governor Huey Long. "Who built the highway to Baton Rouge? Who put up your hospital and built your schools? Who is it looks after sh**kickers like you? You know the Kingfish do." Newman's version was a dead fish, but Levon's profane performance is fit for a king. Allen Toussaint's horn section staggers like a party animal down Beale Street, then dances along neatly with the pride of a N'Orlins parade. If you've ever been to Madi Gras, you'll love the celebratory blast of the horns and the way they compliment Levon's scathing vocal. Yeah, the Kang-fish do.
When The Band planned "The Last Waltz," their highly publicized final concert, Levon Helm insisted blues icon Muddy Waters get an invite. Levon proves he's still got Mud in his veins with his slow, steaming version of Muddy's "You Can't Lose What You Never Had." (Do yourself a favor and listen to the Allman Brothers' rabble-rousing take on "Win, Lose, or Draw.") Muddy might raise an eyebrow at Campbell's flicking mandolin solo, but there's no doubt he'd approve, especially when Campbell pulls the trick off twice. This ain't the blues, but you can't lose.
The album's highlight is Campbell's self-penned eulogy, "When I Go Away," which rocks during the verses and turns into a Bible Belt revival during the chorus as Helm pontificates, Campbell and Jay Collins dig deep for the bass parts, and Amy Helm and Teresa Williams tackle the hand clapping and high back ups. Levon's voice has the same captivating timber as Ralph Stanley's vocal for "O Death," an Appalachian dirge featured on the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack. Stanley's vocal was attached to a chilling scene (he was voicing a Ku Klux Klansman addressing his flock). When you hear Levon sing, you feel saved, rather than frightened: "See that storm over yonder, it's gonna rain all day. But the sun's gonna shine through the shadows, when I go away."
"Heaven's Pearls" is the third Ozark/Appalachian hymn ("Golden Bird" and "White Dove" are the others). What keeps "Heaven's Pearls" from falling into "White Dove's" hillbilly hokum is Steve Bernstein/Larry Campbell's deflated funeral procession horn arrangement.
The closer, "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free," is a New Orleans raver
with party time horns arranged by Allen Toussaint. It's not as heavy handed as the rest of the material, and if you're familiar with Levon's first solo album "Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars," the mood will remind you of Earl King's bayou belter "Sing, Sing, Sing." It's a smart and fun way to end a very satisfyin' and electrifyin' CD.
Levon Alone... Other Solo Stuff, Son
Following the demise of The Band in 1976, Levon jumped out of the blocks with "Levon Helm and the RCO All Stars" (4 ½ out of 5 stars). Helm's "back up" band featured numerous music heavyweights, including Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, Donald "Duck" Dunn, and Booker T. Jones. The album was full of strutting, good time rock and rockabilly, and remains Helm's high point. It's a half a star above "Electric Dirt" because the material is more accessible and it has some of Butterfield's best harp work.
Dr. John's "Washer Woman" opens the album with a bit of leering chauvinism and dead on interplay between Butterfield and the horn section. Duck Dunn's snakey bass, Butterfield's lingering licks and Levon's dead stop drumming highlight "The Tie That Binds," is a bluesy tale of adultery: "Last night I slept with an open eye as you whispered on the phone. The tears you cried soon disappeared, when you wished you was alone. You thought I was sleepin', but I know you were sleazin', and you can't keep that little ole secret from me. Let's not break the tie that binds, let's not lose our peace of mind. You know I really love you darlin', but you just too much to deal with at this time."
Given the acrimony between Helm and former Band guitarist Robbie Robertson, it's a surprise to hear Robertson's clipped solo alongside ex- Band buddy Garth Hudson's accordion in "Sing, Sing, Sing" (or as Levon puts it, "sang, sang, sang"). Side two takes off with a hard charging version of "Milk Cow Boogie," with Levon pushing the beat and Butterfield blowing fire. Butter is smooth in the slow, sorryful blues of "Rain Down Tears," and Levon blithely bounces the beat in "A Mood I Was In" with Butterfield breaking into a lung-busting solo. The closer, "That's My Home" is Band-like down home homily embellished with prancing strings and Southern sentiment: "When friends say how-de-do, and they all mean it to, a lover's love so true, that's my home."
1978's uneven "Levon Helm" (3 out of 5 stars) doesn't match the full band bravado of "The RCO All Stars," but still contains some memorable moments. Oddly, Levon doesn't play drums, leaving that task to the very capable Roger Hawkins (formerly of Traffic) and Willie Hall. Just about everyone's done a version of Al Green's "Take Me to the River," and with Levon in full twang, his toe-tapping take will leave you feeling duly baptized. Other highlights include the driving opener, "Ain't No Way to Forget You," a celebratory version of Tony Joe White's "I Came Here to Party," the slinky "Let's Do it in Slow Motion," and an upbeat horn-filled take of Toussaint's "Brickyard Blues," retitled "Play Something Sweet," with Levon further altering the original by singing "Play me some junkyard blues."
1980's countrified "American Son" (3 out of 5) was Levon's first attempt to record the type of songs rustic traditional folk songs he'd grown up listening to. When it worked, it brought to mind Levon's more grass roots recordings with The Band. When it didn't, it left behind the cornpone after taste of The Grand Ole Opry. The closer, "Sweet Peach Georgia Wine," capitalized on Levon's lecherous country boy personality: "Now how was I supposed to know she was the sheriff's daughter? She was only sweet sixteen, but she looked much older. Well, I guess I learned my lesson, son, now I'm doin' now ten to twenty-one, just for tastin' that sweet peach Georgia wine." "Dance Me Down Easy" bopped like a horny field hand at a Saturday night dance; "Hurricane" recalled the tetchy weather and oily bayou beats made down near Lake Ponchartrain, and "Violet Eyes" was a touching country gentleman ballad. The rest was a might too country for me, but Levon sounded more at ease with the material than on the previous album.
Released in 1982, Levon's second self-title album (1 out of 5 stars) signaled it was time for ole hoss to take a break. Populated by familiar but tired covers (a bankrupt version of "Money," a losing take of "You Can't Win 'Em All"), "Levon Helm 2" only has two salvageable tracks: an attractive but sluggish version of "Willie and the Hand Jive" (more cowbell, Levon!) and one of Helm's best solo tracks, "Even a Fool Would Let Go," a teary ballad that leaves a lump in the throat: "It's funny how love goes, 'cause I know this could never work out. But honey how love grows, even though there's reason to doubt. This could never be, you keep saying it's wrong. Neither one of us is free, still I want to hold on. When even a fool would let go, 'cause he knows there's no use in trying. Even a child would say no, 'cause he know he'll end up crying. Tell me now, is it worse holding you, when even a fool would let go."
After a three decade hiatus, during which The Band reformed (minus Robertson) and recorded three more albums, followed by Levon's struggle with cancer, Levon stunned the music world with the traditional sounds of "Dirt Farmer" (3 out of 5 stars). Despite "Dirt Farmer's" seemingly limited appeal, the album was a hit, garnering a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. The country stuff still whined a bit too much for me, but when Levon mixed a little grit with his old time music, "Dirt Farmer" bore fruit. Among the most notable tunes were "False Hearted Lover Blues," the mandolin driven opener with the "Mystery Train" rhythm; "Calvary," a sparse dirge with haunting resonator guitar strokes; Levon's take on Steve Earle's "The Mountain," a period piece that threw the suffering narrator down in the black hole of a the coal mine; "Feelin' Good," good time country rock in the tradition of Geoff and Maria Muldaur; and "Wide River to Cross," a reflective hymn ("I've come a long, long road, but I've still got some roads to go. I've got a wide, wide river to cross.") You can feel the sand from a depression era dust bowl storm hit you in the face in every cut. "Dirt Farmer's" not an easy album to love, but its worth the effort.
Richard and Rick are gone. Robbie's creative candle has flamed out and Garth is in his bog somewhere creating "Phantom of the Opera" passages on the harmonium. It seems that Levon has always had to struggle to be heard. It's nice to see Levon is doing something other than cameos in Tommy Lee Jones' films. Listen up kids, "Electric Dirt" is a bumper crop. Harvest its bounty and add it to your collection.