1elec•tric, adjective: exciting as if by electric shock
Electric Dirt (Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard Records) is the second album in the last two years from American musical treasure Levon Helm. Its predecessor, Dirt Farmer, his first solo LP in a quarter century, followed Levon’s near-miraculous recovery from throat cancer, and as such represented a new lease on life for the legendary artist, who rose to prominence as the drummer and vocalist for Levon and the Hawks, which later became The Band.
The accolades poured in after Dirt Farmer’s release in the fall of 2007. “This album is nothing less than a return to form by one of the most soulful vocalists in rock history,” raved the San Francisco Chronicle, reflecting the universal sentiment. Levon was named Artist of the Year by the Americana Music Association, and the album was awarded the 2008 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Recording. Meanwhile, Rolling Stone hailed Helm’s Midnight Ramble, which takes place monthly at Levon Helm Studios—a.k.a. The Barn—in his longtime home of Woodstock, N.Y., as 2008’s Best Jam Session.
“I’m not surprised that Levon wanted to do another record so quickly,” says multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, who, along with Amy Helm, produced Dirt Farmer and who, due to Ms. Helm’s obligations as a new mother, was the sole producer of this project. “It turned out to be a promising relationship as far as he and I were concerned, and a promising situation overall. We all had the sense that Levon’s reemergence was long overdue, and it was downright thrilling to hear him singing again at the Midnight Rambles and during the sessions for the last record, after the possibility of losing that voice forever. For people my age and a little bit older, it was as if the Beatles had gotten back together. That would have been a very important voice to have lost, and to get it back again was monumental.”
The 11 tracks feature the same core crew of Midnight Ramble regulars that played on Dirt Farmer and subsequently hit the road: Helm behind the drum kit, Ollabelle’s Byron Isaacs on bass, Brian Mitchell on keyboards, Campbell on various guitars, fiddle, mandolin, dulcimer and harmony vocals. Backing vocalists Amy Helm of Ollabelle, Levon’s daughter, and Teresa Williams, Campbell’s wife, deepen the album’s “next of kin” vibe. The horn section of the Levon Helm Band appears on four tracks. Two of the tracks were arranged by the legendary Allen Toussaint with the LHB horns and the other two tracks by trumpet-playing band member Steven Bernstein. Best known for his work with Marianne Faithfull, Lou Reed and Rufus Wainwright, Bernstein is also leader of New York avant-jazz band Sex Mob. So this is a diverse group of skilled musicians united by their feel for and devotion to Helm’s singular vision.
Electric Dirt again finds Levon steeped in tradition in his connection to the land and those who live by it, but this record goes deeper and wider, incorporating gospel, blues and soul elements in a bracing collection of originals and carefully chosen outside songs.
“We knew we couldn’t just remake Dirt Farmer; it had to be something different,” Campbell explains. “Because as great as that record was, as convincing as … Read More