Levon Helm | Electric Dirt

Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  June 23, 2009
3.5 3.5 Stars

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Helm's 2007 Dirt Farmer won the Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy for its acoustic arrangements of songs plucked from the Delta soil of the Band drummer and singer's rural Arkansas youth. This time Helm and producer Larry Campbell (who also plays in Dylan's band) have gone electric.

They've also tapped New Orleans giant Allen Toussaint to arrange horns for versions of Randy Newman's "Kingfish" and Billy Taylor's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free," the latter made famous by Nina Simone. The songbooks of Muddy Waters and the Staple Singers are also visited in this ramble through gospel, blues, and soul, anchored by the grace and gravity of Helm's ever-recovering cancer-scarred voice.

The organic, timeless quality of that voice — especially haunting on Helm's own tale of a farmer's struggle, "Growing Trade" — is offset by the sweetness of his daughter Amy's harmony singing, as well as by bright eddies of slide guitar and mandolin, all of it creating an appealing balance.

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