2009 / Music

Review: Band Vocalist Levon Helm Digs Up, Exposes ‘Electric’ Roots

Classic-Rock Singer Releases Followup To Award-Winning Disc

The Band boasted three tremendously talented and distinctive vocalists, but guitarist Robbie Robertson never considered anyone else but drummer Levon Helm to lend a voice to his musical masterpiece “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”

Photo: Dirt Farmer/Vanguard Records

Photo: Dirt Farmer/Vanguard Records

After all, Robertson had written the song for Helm as a tribute to his best friend and the combo’s unofficial musical director. The track was the centerpiece of the group’s sepia-toned, self-titled Americana classic and an epic honoring the Southern culture the Arkansawyer Helm had generously introduced him. As a Southerner in a group of Canadian players, only Helm could personalize the song’s cinematic scope and sing so convincingly with mournful pride about the loss and crushed hope experienced at the end of the American Civil War.

In the years since the Band’s height of success in the late ’60s, Helm’s life story has been every bit as tumultuous and world worn as the battered farmer that he voiced on “Dixie.” While the Band propelled its members to dizzying heights in the rock world, it would also eventually unleash powerful destructive forces as calamitous as Sherman’s march that would decimate each of their lives: betrayal, substance abuse, writer’s block, negative press, suicide and financial chaos. Helm shared in his comrades’ misfortunes.

Perhaps cruelest of all, throat cancer threatened to silence Helm’s Razorback yelp once and for all. While he’d survive these years of hard times, it wasn’t until 2007 that Helm impressed another guitar ace who could conceive a recorded scenario to fully present the singer’s musical gifts. That record, “Dirt Farmer,” offered Helm a chance at redemption and the critical notices and Grammy award that followed gave reaffirmation of his unique talents. Seeking to build on that success, Helm’s brand-new disc, “Electric Dirt,” picks up where “Dirt Farmer” left off, but shows signs that the singer is lapsing into the musical habits that initially sunk his solo career way back when.

While the mountain-music splendor of “Dirt Farmer” was a rustic revelation as fresh as the “O Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, the ultimate value that “Dirt Farmer” offered music fans was a reintroduction to Helm. The singer’s legacy traces back to the tail end of rock’s golden age and rockets through the music’s most imaginative era in the ’60s and ’70s before slowing in the ’80s and ’90s. During the late ’50s and early ’60s, Helm was a teenaged, rock ‘n’ roll rebel who escaped the farms of Arkansas when he joined second-tier rockabilly showman Ronnie Hawkins and his troupe of traveling hellions, the Hawks. With Hawkins and their first fortuitous Canadian recruit Robbie Robertson, Helm cherry picked the best young Canuck musicians they could find, assembling what would become the Band years later.

Ditching Hawkins, the group was recruited to be Bob Dylan’s backing group during his landmark electric tours in 1965 and 1966. For the remainder of the decade, the quintet would woodshed songs with Dylan during his years of self-imposed exile in Woodstock, N.Y. They also remained his go-to live unit for sporadic concert appearances even as the former Hawks transformed into the Band and began recording and touring as an independent ensemble, achieving renown on their own terms.

Eventually, withering creativity as well as drugs, alcohol and suppressed resentments poisoned the esteem the Band once commanded. By 1975, Robertson conceived of “The Last Waltz,” an all-star finale and subsequent movie that would cash in their chips and bring the group to a peaceful end. Amid accusations of glory-hogging and stolen songwriting credits, the tight partnership through which Robertson and Helm had forged the Band was irrevocably broken. In the years after “The Last Waltz, the brotherly love they once shared transformed itself into stone, cold hatred. Partially for the familial bond, part for money and maybe for spite, Helm reformed the Band in the early ’80s without their guitarist and primary songwriter. Although the combo produced three albums, each lacked the allure and originality of the group’s greatest albums. After losing two original members prematurely, the Band finally ground to a halt in 1998. At the same time, Helm’s finances were a mess and he temporarily lost his voice because of cancer. It would take years for him to recover.

Despite the tough luck, new hope did eventually appear. The architect behind Helm’s unexpected career renaissance is his producer and guitar player Larry Campbell. Like Helm, Campbell knows a thing or two of the mercurial, electrifying nature of life as a Dylan sideman. Campbell toured with Dylan for a handful of years (1997-2004) during what was arguably the pinnacle of his ongoing Never Ending Tour. Campbell’s florid style on the fretboard and his multi-instrumentality offered his boss a malleable charge capable of easing and augmenting any erratic shift of mood. The same adaptability would serve the guitarist in all his subsequent pursuits. Since leaving Dylan’s employ, Campbell has busied himself with road gigs with the Grateful Dead’s Phil Lesh and occasional session and production work, but Helm’s musical resurrection has been his principal concern.

Campbell, with help from Helm’s daughter Amy, sought to get on tape the reservoir of traditional songs Helm had learned during his farm-based youth and always proved so impressive at informal jam sessions with his trusty mandolin for years. (“Little Birds,” one of the standouts from “Dirt Farmer,” was debuted by Helm during the Band’s concert in 1969). Mostly shunning electric instruments, Campbell guided Helm to go it unplugged and focus on material that explored all manner of roots music — country, blues, folk and bluegrass. “Dirt Farmer” unexpectedly won a Grammy award for Best Traditional Folk Album and many critics hailed it as his best performance since the Band’s albums “Music From Big Pink” and “The Band.”

With “Electric Dirt, Campbell wisely to retain the same winning formula that that he and Helm devised for “Dirt Farmer” sessions — low-key but competent supporting musicians and an emphasis on a roots-oriented, sonic template. However, the duo is attempting to present these with a new twist. The new 11-song set expands beyond strict acoustic instrumentation, sampling electric blues, old-school soul and New Orleans funk — ingredients the Band included in their musical gumbo. The music is less overtly old-timey and has a more of a party vibe, which is less exotic sounding than the “Dirt Farmer” material.

This strategy is dangerous. Helm’s fondness for corny, bar-band fare ultimately deep-sixed his solo career in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Back then, he assembled a dream team of roots-music players, but ultimately led them to aspire to be nothing more than a booze-stained jukebox. To forestall this, Campbell pushed Helm to record covers of Randy Newman and the Grateful Dead along with little-known gems penned by Muddy Waters and Pops Staples. While the effort and the songs’ inventive arrangements do mitigate the suspicion that Helm is again making music below his station, listeners can’t be fooled.

They certainly win points for the valiant attempt to mask the Muddy Waters tunes as hillbilly blues. Helm’s mandolin and an accordion give “Stuff You Gotta Watch” and “You Can’t Lose What You Ain’t Had” a jugband flair that would please any roadhouse crowd. But, it’s still just blues covers. Staples’ “Moving Train” doesn’t get the same TLC. It’s a sluggish blues that features backing vocals by Campbell’s wife Teresa Williams and Amy Helm, who do an impressive imitation of Ray Charles’ Ray-lets, but there’s little else that’s remarkable.

Other performances are just as inconsistent. Saloon piano, slappy drumming and Campbell’s zig-zag slide guitarwork give the Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” a little pep but it doesn’t even attempt to break the mold. Folk song “Golden Birds” is an overly elaborate gospel epic that doesn’t take off when it needs to. Later on, Helms brilliantly rediscovers his cheeky, sleazy side when he hollers “Kingfish” like he’s the house entertainment at a New Orleans bordello.

Rather than the covers or party jams, it’s the tracks which showcase Helm and his collaborators’ vocal might that prove the most effective. “When I Go Away,” a Campbell original, has a pleasing, midtempo bounce rhythm, but only blossoms into something truly awe-inspiring during the bridge when Helm orchestrates a complicated vocal breakdown featuring Williams, Campbell and both Helms. Similarly, a rendition of “Heaven’s Pearls,” a song that Amy Helm originally recorded with her own group Ollabelle, is an exquisite duet between father and daughter. If Helm is passing along any lessons to his offspring, it’s how to expertly sell a tearjeaker from the drum riser. Helping out, Campbell layers sorrowful horns and a brooding guitar line that amplify the track’s church-like aura.

A sense of churchliness, a pursuit of or the avoidance of salvation, has been a recurring theme in some of Helm’s best performances. Implicitly, there was a sense with the “Dirt Farmer” songs that Helm wanted a second chance, to break with the past and reframe himself in the musical landscape. He might be an oldies act, but only in the best sense of the word. With Campbell’s help, he sought to preserve and present songs and styles that might have been forgotten and overlooked in passage of time.

“Electric Dirt” has the same best intentions. However, one can detect a level of comfort and confidence in these tracks — maybe joyfulness — that mark them more like show tunes than newly unearthed gems from the “Anthology Of American Folk Music.” As brilliantly as Helm can sing and play, a sense of authenticity is the most precious commodity that he brings to the microphone. He just needs the right material.

Robbie Robertson knew this about his former friend and one suspects Campbell will make this same discovery.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2009 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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