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Levon Helm

Electric Dirt – 2009 (Vanguard)

Reviewed by Rick Cornell

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CDs by Levon Helm

Even when he was a young man, before the years and the ailments, Levon Helm's vocals sounded like they were from a bygone era. It was a voice to make you believe that medicine shows still traveled the earth. That wonderful, weathered instrument is the rustic heart of this new record, just as Helm's ageless drumming is its heartbeat. And despite a title that suggests a more modern program than 2007's "Dirt Farmer," the songs, like their vessel, are mostly from another time. (That said, unlike on the acoustic "Dirt Farmer," an electric guitar does wander in on occasion.)

The bookends here, both blessed with horn sections, couldn't be better as opening and closing statements: Helm's lively reading of Tennessee Jed reveals it to be the best Band song ever written by the Grateful Dead, while a take on the late-'60s gospel number I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free (originally recorded by Nina Simone) offers a rousing "Amen!" complete with a horn arrangement by old friend Allen Toussaint. In between, song sources range from Muddy Waters and the Stanley Brothers to Randy Newman and, the most recent, Helm's daughter Amy's outfit Ollabelle. And producer Larry Campbell continues to cement his reputation as multi-threat secret weapon by holding court on anything with strings. Campbell also contributes When I Go Away, a song he wrote for the Dixie Hummingbirds, while teaming with Helm for Growin' Trade, a family-farm drama that feels caked with the Arkansas soil of Helm's childhood as, fittingly, then meets now.