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. And now that he is in fact an old man, the embedded salt-of-the-earth wisdom and weariness in his honeyed, Arkansan twang feels that much more earned and legit, if that’s even possible. On his first record for Vanguard, 2007’s acclaimed Dirt Farmer, Helm caught the ear of the No Depression generation with its Steve Earle and Carter Family covers, and won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. Electric Dirt builds on that momentum with a vibrant mix of gospel, blues, and New Orleans brass.
The “electric” of the title doesn’t refer to instruments, per se, but rather the charged atmosphere of the proceedings. Contrasted with Dirt Farmer’s opener, the traditional “False Hearted Lover Blues”, Electric Dirt kicks off with a six-minute boogie reading of the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed”, announcing the album as more of a shindig than a séance. It’s followed up by the Staples Singers’ “Move Along Train”, humid with a slow swinging pace, Helm’s impassioned performance backed by smooth gospel backing vocals. Along with Randy Newman’s “Kingfish” and the closer “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” (made famous by Nina Simone), the song selections and performances are more rousing, and cover a wider variety of song forms and styles, filtered through Helm’s own sensibility. The Muddy Waters tune “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had” features a rapid-fire mandolin solo, rather than electric guitar, for example, while a take on Ollabelle’s “Heaven’s Pearls” improves on the original, sped up slightly as a duet between Helm and daughter Amy.
Quieter moments help bridge the gap from Dirt Farmer, and keep the new record from being a complete departure. “Golden Bird” is a haunting Appalachian-style ballad that begins with little more than Helm’s craggy voice dueling with a pair of winding fiddles, but slowly builds as it accrues different, often unexpected textures. The sole Helm original “Growing Trade”, penned with producer/multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, about a struggling farmer who turns to raising illicit crops, ahem, in order to keep his land, is the album’s most intriguing character/narrative song. What draws all of the tracks together is the refusal of every arrangement to adhere to the usual trick bags allotted to their respective songs’ styles. While the players are as locked in as you’d expect having played together on Dirt Farmer and subsequently on the road, their choices are more outside the lines than typical genre exercises, with nuances worthy of backing one of rock’s most beloved and versatile voices.
Overall, as delightful as Helm’s 2007 comeback was, Electric Dirt feels like even more cause for celebration. Neither the left-field alternative interpretations of Johnny Cash’s final few albums, nor the insular, moody explorations of contemporary Bob Dylan, Helm’s recent work embraces the past alongside the present in a way that is inviting, joyous, and thoroughly satisfying.