In 2007, Levon Helm released Dirt Farmer, a Grammy-winning comeback that redefined his long, storied career. Dirt Farmer deserved all the praise it won, but the fact remains that it pales next to this year’s Electric Dirt.
Electric Dirt, once more produced by Helm’s longtime guitarist Larry Campbell, is a lifetime achievement award on its own terms. It’s simply brilliant. It’s largely a gospel album in disguise, with Helm putting the spirit into Pop Staples’s “Move Along Train,” the Stanley Brothers’ “White Dove,” Ollabelle’s “Heaven’s Pearls,” the Nina Simone standard “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” and Campbell’s glorious, soul-dripping “When I Go Away.” But Helm’s mark is just as fierce on secular songs like the Grateful Dead’s horn-driven “Tennessee Jed” (featuring a wonderful arrangement by trumpeter Steven Bernstein), Randy Newman’s “Kingfish” (with charts from old pal Allen Toussaint), and a pair of Muddy Waters numbers, “Stuff You Gotta Watch” and “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Never Had.”
Any one of these performances will make you glad that music was invented and that Levon Helm was born, but they are not the best of the bunch. Happy Traum’s shimmering, droning “Golden Bird” is held in Helm’s palm like a great lost discovery from America’s past, and Helm and Campbell’s “Growing Trade,” about a desperate farmer turning his fields over to cannabis, is as fine a song as Helm has ever sung. Levon, we hope you’re working on your Grammy speech—again. www.vanguardrecords.com.