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Album review: Levon Helm's 'Electric Dirt'

July 1, 2009 |  1:25 pm
Levon_Helm_240 If there's one thing a good drummer knows it's the power of a groove, and Helm, one of rock's greatest with the sticks, has them in spades on "Electric Dirt," his second album since recovering from throat cancer. 

Helm's upped the rock energy quotient here, taking him even closer to that timeless Americana sound he and his mates in the Band helped create four decades ago. The sources of that sound are evident in the earthy blues of Muddy Waters' "You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had," the deep gospel of Pops Staples' "Move Along Train" and Happy Traum's ethereal Celtic-cum-Appalachian ballad "Golden Bird."

The different strains of American roots music meld seamlessly in "Growing Trade," written by Helm and album producer Larry Campbell, and on his version of the Grateful Dead's "Tennessee Jed." Both songs sound like worthy companion pieces to the timeless roots rock of the Band's "Music From Big Pink" and the group's collaboration with Bob Dylan in "The Basement Tapes."

New Orleans great Allen Toussaint lends his unmistakable touch with colorful horn arrangements on Randy Newman’s "Kingfish" and Richard Carroll Lamp and Willy E. Taylor's effusive "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free."

Helm's voice has lost almost all traces of the cancer-treatment damage that was periodically evident on 2007's "Dirt Farmer," returning to what approaches the full glory of its prime. He sings of the land and of people who struggle to hold on to some small piece of it. It's especially powerful considering the ways in which he's transcended significant struggles of his own.

-- Randy Lewis 

Levon Helm
"Electric Dirt"
(Vanguard)
Three and a half stars
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