Graded on a Curve:
Levon Helm,
Electric Dirt

If the late Richard Manuel was the heart of The Band, then Levon Helm was its soul. The cotton farmer’s son from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, who decided to become a musician after seeing Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, brought the whole of the American folk and country tradition with him to The Band, and was the titular leader of Levon and the Hawks until a certain Robbie Robertson, who is the villain of this piece, used his extraordinary songwriting skills to take over.

In the aftermath of 1976’s The Last Waltz, which was the band’s final show not so much by agreement as by fiat by Robertson, great things might have been expected from Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, and Robbie Robertson. But it was not to be, and the individual member’s post-Band work sadly doesn’t amount to much. Robertson didn’t release a solo album until 1987, and four more albums thereafter, but they’re overcooked affairs, and sound more like something Bono might have cooked up than Robertson’s Americana with the band. As for the other members, Danko released a couple of so-so LPs, Manuel released one studio LP, while Hudson never released a solo LP. That leaves Helm, who released four solo LPs between 1977 (the first with his RCO All-Stars) and 1982. And that would have been it had Helm not made a big, Grammy-winning return with 2007’s Dirt Farmer, which he followed with another Grammy winner in 2010’s Electric Dirt.

On both LPs Helm returns to his roots; never much of a songwriter, he was always a great interpreter of other peoples’ songs, and on Electric Dirt he shares exactly one co-writing credit, with multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Larry Campbell. As for the other tunes, they range from a Grateful Dead classic to Randy Newman’s great homage to the populist but crooked Louisiana governor, Huey Long, to songs by bluegrass great Carter Stanley and soul and gospel legend Pops Staples.

The LP opens with the Grateful Dead classic “Tennessee Jed,” and you can’t beat the instrumentation; Brian Mitchell plays a wonderful accordion, and some slick piano on top of that, and there’s a whole parcel of horn players to give the song a bit of a Dixieland feel. As for the tempo, Helm’s “Tennessee Jed” sounds like the Dead version, that is if somebody gave it a good kick in the ass. On Staples’ “Move Along Train,” one funky guitar by Jimmy Vivino opens it up, and after that it’s all gospel goodness, with lots of tasty guitar and Helm, joined by wife Amy, singing like they just come out of the holler, and are out to save your everlasting soul. Amy Helm also joins Levon on “Growin’ Trade,” his song about a farmer who has taken to growing marijuana to keep his land. “Shotgun on my shoulder,” sings Helm, because he’s got to worry about both thieves and the law, he knows he’s made a deal with the devil, and as for the song it boasts a lovely melody, some truly funky drumming by Helm, and lots of top-notch piano by Brian Mitchell.

Happy Traum’s slow “Golden Bird” is a lovely and stately tune, with an almost Irish feel, and a doleful fiddle runs through it that will make you cry in your root beer. “Golden Bird” sounds like a mystery tune passed down for hundreds of years from kin to kin. It has a religious feel, this one, with the singer killing the golden bird he couldn’t catch only to awaken later that night to find the room “bathed in a warm golden glow.” He opens his eyes, a woman is standing there, and Amy Helm joins her husband to let him know she was his love and his friend and he will never see him again. As for Helm’s take on Muddy Waters’ “Stuff You Gotta Watch” it’s a funky number, from Helm’s swinging vocals to the great backing vocals to Helm’s simply astounding drum work. Meanwhile an accordion does its thing, while Helm sings about all the stuff you’ve got to watch out for if you don’t want to lose your woman. Helm is in great voice for a guy who was recovering from throat cancer, and this is midnight ramble material, no doubt about it.

Carter Stanley’s “White Dove” is a down home by the creek sorta number, with a fiddle carrying the heaviest weight while Amy Helm and Teresa Williams provide backing vocals. “I’ll live my life in sorrow,” sings Helm, “Since mama and daddy are dead.” Meanwhile, Helm gives Newman’s “Kingfish” the treatment, complete with a honky-tonk piano and a big horn section, and his version is as good as Newman’s, which is saying something. Long is all braggadocio, and playing his man of the poor persona to the hilt: “Everybody gather round/Loosen up your suspenders/Hunker down on the ground/I’m a cracker/You are too/But don’t I take good care of you?” He then proceeds to crow about his achievements, “friend of the working man” that he is, before the horns take over and it’s time to dance in the streets of New Orleans, that is you’re not a Frenchman or a Standard Oil man but a just another shitkicker from the bayou.

“You Can’t Lose What You Never Had” is another Muddy Waters tune, and it boasts a great melody and lots of cool mandolin, gratis Helm himself. “I had a sweet little girl,” sings Helm, “I lose my baby/Now ain’t that bad/Now ain’t that bad.” Meanwhile Helm lays on the kick drum like the drummer in a strip show band, a guitar tosses off some tasty licks, and this one is as tight as a drum and as loose as a goose. Larry Campbell’s “When I Go Away” is a funky bar room shuffle/gospel tune in which Helm ponders his death to the accompaniment of some female backing vocalists and one hell of a baritone; he sees a “storm over yonder/It’s gonna rain all day/But then the sun’s gonna shine through the shadows when I go away.” Don’t worry, Helm sings, he’s “bound for glory on the day when I go away.” The vocal arrangement is a thing of beauty, as are the organ and guitar touches.

“Heaven’s Pearls” is a lovely slow-burner of a country gospel tune; the horn arrangement is spot on, the organ is wonderful, and Helm sings, “The trials of the world/Are all Heaven’s pearls.” The instrumental section is perfect, as are the horns that follow, and this may be Helm’s best song, at least on Electric Dirt. As for “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free,” it’s a jazzy and upbeat number on which Helm sings the song’s title to the accompaniment of those female vocalists. The guitar is nice, the horns rock and roll, and Helm sings, “I wish I could do/All the things I can’t do” and how sweet it would be if he could fly, and the yearning in his voice, to transcend mortality, is very real indeed.

Given the sheer talent of its members, one might have expected more great solo LPs following The Band’s dissolution. Of Robertson’s debut, Robert Christgau wrote “Once established as an icon of quality, he always took himself too seriously,” before rebuking him for hooking up with the Anglophilic likes of Peter Gabriel and Bono Vox. Manuel spent way too much time drunk, and he wasn’t a bandleader anyway, which goes double for Garth Hudson. Rick Danko did way too many drugs which leaves Helm, who appeared to be going down the same road until he rebounded, much to our delight, at the very end of his life. As a result, we have two albums that we can add to The Band’s legacy, which is a good thing for a band that, when all is said and done, only put out two great studio LPs in the first place. Thank you, Levon Helm. You weren’t afraid of either dirt or electricity, and you kept the spirit of The Band alive.


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