Review: Levon Helm, Electric Dirt

“Growing Trade,” written by Helm and his producer (and multi-instrumentalist) Larry Campell, evokes Band classics such as “King Harvest and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” The song, which documents the plight of a small farmer who's turned pot grower in order to survive, is capped off with the poignant lament “I used to farm for a living/ But now I’m in the growing trade.” Swelling female background vocals (including those of Helm’s daughter Amy) intensify the tune’s sense of overarching regret.

A couple of lively shuffle blues — two by Muddy Waters, “Stuff You Gotta Watch” and “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had” — provide more effervescence, while the ballad “Heaven’s Pearls,” with its somber organ, adds the aroma of a back-country church.

With Richard Manuel and Rick Danko dead, and Helm and Robbie Robertson estranged, a Band reunion is out of the question. But Levon’s recent forays into authentic American music serve to open a new, improbable chapter in his career and help keep the spirit of his old group alive. (Vanguard)

Electric Dirt is currently streaming in its entirety on Entertainment Weekly's website.

First Levon Helm survived throat cancer, then, improbably, he started singing again. And then, astonishingly, he returned to form. While his voice is thinner than during his days with The Band — he is 69, after all — Helm still brings the grit, that marvelous blend of Ozark country, blues and gospel.

His first album after recovering, 2007’s Dirt Farmer (Vanguard), was a treasure, an absolutely genuine slice of Americana that won the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.

Its followup, Electric Dirt, is another triumph, extending the reach of Farmer while retaining its rustic character. The new disc, released Tuesday, June 30, is not simply a plugged-in extension of its predecessor. Although electric guitars pop up now and again, it’s still largely an acoustic album. The addition of horns on four tracks — two arranged by Allen Toussaint and two by Stephen Bernstein — gives the new one an added dimension, some extra oomph.

The horns get into the act right way with a springy version of the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” which has a decidedly Band-ish feel and kicks off the disc with a great deal of exuberance.


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Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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