Editor's note: This review was written in 2009, before Helm's death in April 2012.
At age 69, Levon Helm sings like a geezer from another era—say, the Great Depression. Which is another way of saying that Helm’s voice has evolved to sound like he and his Band-mates looked on the covers of their first few albums. Of course back in the day, Helm, along with Richard Manuel, pretty much was the voice of The Band, as well, naturally, as its drummer. He sang with a soulful Southern gusto on signature songs such as “The Weight,” “Up On Cripple Creek,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” And while he may not be that old, the man has already lived enough to squeeze in another 20 or so years. He also battled throat cancer, which for years kept him from singing at all.
It was in 1998, thirty years after the appearance of The Band’s debut, Music From Big Pink, that Helm became a resident of Woodstock, New York. Along the way, The Band became one of the most successful and respected groups in popular music, he had an epic fallout with the group’s guitarist Robbie Robertson, Manuel killed himself in the midst of a 1986 tour, Helm’s Woodstock home burned down in 1991, bassist Rick Danko died in 1999, and several years ago medical expenses forced him into bankruptcy.
But he’s survived it all.
After a year of radiation treatments his cancer was in remission. After another year his voice started to return. During the time he was unable to sing, Helm still played drums with a series of rag-tag groups he’d assemble at his Woodstock home studio. These so-called Midnight Rambles sessions occasionally featured the likes of Elvis Costello, Rickie Lee Jones, and Gillian Welch. As his voice returned, strong yet weaker than before, his daughter Amy, of the band Olabelle, urged him to record again. The result was 2007’s Dirt Farmer, a critically heralded return that mixed old country tunes with those of contemporaries such as Steve Earle. It was also his first solo album in a quarter century.
Assembling many of the same players found on Dirt Farmer, Helm’s recent Electric Dirt may not be at quite the same level, but it’s still a damn fine record worthy of its name.
Again mixing things up, Levon and company kick off with a knock-kneed take on the Dead’s “Tennessee Jed,” settle into a slow-burning blues, and move to the Band-like “Growin’ Trade” before the gorgeous “Golden Bird,” which, with its fiddle, bowed bass, and autoharp sounds like something from the Smithsonian’s Anthology of American Music. Randy Newman’s “Kingfish” is another highlight, as are two tunes by Muddy Waters, “Stuff You Gotta Watch,” and “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.” The album could have used a little more focus on strongly penned songs, but even those that fall into familiar R&B patterns have their moments.
Sonically the record is good if not stellar. The tonal balance is nice and natural, the overall presentation is good and clear, and instruments and vocals are nicely integrated and possess a reasonable amount of texture.
Levon Helm is on something of a golden roll; let’s hope he keeps singing, drum- ming, and making music on those Midnight Rambles.