Levon Helm is the Southern gentleman drummer and multi-instrumentalist who founded the Band, which surely makes him one of America's greatest storytellers, bar none. His voice constituted one-third of the vocal beauty of the Band's songs, all the while, as drummer, providing the thump behind the group's unique sound. Helm's also always been the kinda guy who wants to invite you to his party — after all, the guy quit Bob Dylan's band shortly before the bard's now legendary '66 tour of England because he was "raised to believe that music was supposed to make people smile and want to party." Well, bust out the whiskey, spark up a joint, and grab your old lady, 'cause ol' Levon is back … and it's time to boogie.
Electric Dirt finds the masterful artist fully recovered from the throat cancer that nearly put him on permanent hiatus a few years back. A follow-up to 2008's Grammy-grabber Dirt Farmer, the new disc proves that if life is a carnival, then Helm is our ringmaster, as he leads his band through 10 tunes of gospel, rock 'n' roll, swamp blues and pure old-time soul. Thing kick off with a Grateful Dead cover, "Tennessee Jed"; Helm's classic Southern drawl fits the Dead's ode to Tennessee extremely well, his plaintive tone making it clear that that state (or state of mind?) is a place where Levon obviously longs to be. Helm and his crack band then head further south to New Orleans, where Randy Newman's "Kingfish" is given an Allen Toussaint-led horn arrangement. Whereas Newman's original string-heavy version had a distinct sadness to it, Helm and Toussaint's motto is apparently "laissez les bon temps rouler." Toussaint (who first worked with the Band in '71) also provides the arrangement for a cover of Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free," originally popularized by Nina Simone.
Staying true to the Band's "Next of Kin" vibe, Helm employs his daughter, Amy Helm, to sing harmony on nine of the album's 10 tunes. Amy's vocals bring to mind hints of the Band's much-admired vocal blend, especially on "When I Go Away."
And also keeping with that "family" vibe, longtime Dylan sidekick Larry Campbell produced the album and plays guitar throughout. Levon sings lead and, of course, plays drums on all the songs, while adding his signature mandolin to a few others. You can almost hear the mud falling off his boots when he pounds out a drumbeat, especially on the powerful "Stuff You Gotta Watch." This American son feels safe and right at home throughout Electric Dirt … and it shows in the music. We're talking feel music here — played until it feels just right and subsequently warms the bones. Now if I could just find a ride to one of Levon's weekly Saturday night "Midnight Rambles" in Woodstock, N.Y. ...
Local rock star and Band aficionado-expert Eddie Baranek fronts the Sights. Levon Helm's Ramble at the Ryman — featuring the artist presenting one of his Midnight Rambles at the legendary Ryman Auditorium in Nashville — is running throughout August on PBS-TV. Check local listings for times and dates.
Eddie Baranek reviews music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].