By James Calemine
As a follow up to Levon Helm’s award-winning Dirt Farmer, Electric Dirt represents a looser release with the same traditional music vibe recorded at Helm’s venerable Woodstock studio. These songs contain an earthy vibrance. The opening track, a brilliant horn-flavored rendition of the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” verifies Helm’s appreciation for old weird American song craft.
A soulful version of Roebuck Staple’s “Move Along Train” highlights guitarist/producer Larry Campbell’s deft instrumentations, Amy Helm and Campbell’s wife Theresa’s sweet voices. Helm’s original “Growin’ Trade” stands as a soundtrack for the under-appreciated American farmer. His voice sounds great as it did when he sang for The Band; even after many, many radiation treatments for throat cancer.
The playing on this record is flawless American craftsmanship at its finest. Happy Traum’s “Golden Bird” is a composition peppered with vocals, bass drum, Autoharp, bass, harmonium, acoustic guitar, fiddle and dulcimer that outweigh any hip or fashionable music out there today. A version of “Stuff You Gotta Watch” gets back to Helm’s deep appreciation for his friend Muddy Waters’ music.
“White Dove”, a Carter Stanley tune, conjures images of Appalachian environs and its good folk. A rendition of Randy Newman’s “Kingfish” contains a New Orleans ragtime appeal that lingers like a music snapshot of 1930s jazz. Another Muddy Waters tune, “You Can’t Lose What You Never Had”, resonates in a stripped down charm with only Helm, Campbell and Byron Isaac’s on bass that could pass for a Chess Records single.
A Larry Campbell original, “When I Go Away”, travels into an R&B groove that demonstrates the dexterity this group of musicians exercise. “Heaven’s Pearls”, a slow bluesy country song allows Helm’s daughter Amy to shine in all her vocal radiance. This tune is another example of how this group allows the Old American Songbook to guide their musical instincts.
The final track—“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”—written by Richard Lamb and Bill Taylor allows the group to return to The Band’s glorious blend of down-home spun American songs while utilizing jazz, R&B and rockabilly into one cohesive sound. The vital Electric Dirt remains rooted in the organic musical blends of American soil…