Release Date: Jun 30, 2009
Record label: Vanguard
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.
The spine of the promotional CD reads Electric Dirt (Tentative Title) though there’s nothing encoded on the disc that sounds the least bit tentative. In fact, there have been few vocalists in the past 50 years of popular music who project such a natural authority as Levon Helm. From his earliest work as Levon and the Hawks, which later morphed into the legendary Band, Helm has always sounded possessed by an old man’s soul.
The former Band drummer and cancer survivor’s vocals sound grizzled and glorious on Electric Dirt, the (slightly) electrified sequel to 2007’s Dirt Farmer, whether he’s tackling Randy Newman’s ”Kingfish” or Muddy Waters’ ”Stuff You Gotta Watch.” B+.
Helm cultivates the soil of his roots to create an intimate, well-crafted record Helm's sinewy spin on the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed" starts the album off, setting the tone for a record that swings back and forth from soulful gospel to swaggering blues. Helm tinges old folk tunes, like Happy Traum's "Golden Bird," with a dash of rootsy rusticity, and his leathery voice adds a beautifully threadbare weight to the song. But Helm's ability to seamlessly switch gears is apparent throughout the record—the mood immediately changes with "Stuff You Gotta Watch," a knee-slapping, jangling tune that, despite its bluesy origins, will likely make you want to boogie.