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Published: 2007/12/21
by Brad Farberman

Dirt Farmer – Levon Helm

Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard Records 79844-2

It’s been twenty-five years since Levon Helm’s last proper studio album (1982’s Levon Helm), but the voice of The Band is back.

And he’s making up for lost time. Helm was dealt a bad hand in 1996: diagnosed with throat cancer, it looked like we were going to lose the pipes that brought us “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ophelia” and, unforgettably, “The Weight.” But one surgery, twenty-eight radiation treatments and ten years later, the once-mighty drummer and vocalist is mighty once more, and busier than ever with a new album (Dirt Farmer) and, of course, his Midnight Rambles.

The Rambles, if you haven’t heard, are supposed to be the hottest thing going. Helm has been hosting these regular jam sessions, or Rambles, at a barn on his Woodstock, New York property since 2004, and some pretty hip folks have dropped by to play: folks like Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint (and John Medeski and Steven Bernstein!). And all this rambling, it seems, precipitated the now-Grammy nominated Dirt Farmer.

Featuring a core band of Larry Campbell (guitar, fiddle, mandolin), Byron Isaacs (bass) Brian Mitchell (accordion, piano) and daughter Amy Helm (you might know her band, Ollabelle) on harmony and backing vocals (and drums on one track!), Helm’s new disc packs a folky, countrified punch that’s as raw and soulful as anything he’s done. Steve Earle’s “The Mountain,” brimming with expert fiddle and mandolin work, and Helm’s masterful drumming, offers an excellent vocal from the leader, and none-too-shabby harmonies from his daughter. J. B. Lenoir’s “Feelin’ Good” is certain to make you feel just that, from Campbell’s solo guitar introduction to Levon’s final cymbal crash. The album packs it up with “Wide River to Cross,” by Buddy and Julie Miller, and there’s no mistaking why Levon left this one for last. “Sometimes even the strongest soldier falls,” he sings, but Dirt Farmer is proof that that strongest of soldiers gets right back up, and cuts a killer new record.

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