Electric Dirt – Levon Helm
Authors note: Keep those cards and letters, kids; the following is not a point of debate or worse, some sort of anti-Grateful Dead statement. I love the Red, Blue, and Bolt as much as any of you, I bet and owe them my own debt of thanks for the times they braced me up. But sometimes you just gotta follow your heart. BR
Up until a few days ago, Im not sure what I wouldve told you my favorite version of Tennessee Jed was (now theres a point of debate: whats yours? Europe 72? Boston, 6/11/76? Universal City, 6/30/73? Chapel Hill, 3/24/93? Berkeley, 10/30/84?), but now it doesnt matter.
Im here to tell you, Im listening to the real Tennessee Jed right now – and his name is Levon Helm. Helms latest album, Electric Dirt, kicks off with the definitive version of the Hunter/Garcia tale of the hapless character who, no matter how many times he gets the living shit beat out of him, keeps on trucking. From Larry Campbells opening dobro riff to the rollicking ragtimey horns arranged by Steve Bernstein to Helms country-funk drumming, the vibe is sheer fun but the vocal really seals the deal. When Levon leans into it and drawls out
I dropped four flights and cracked my spine
Honey, come quick with the iodine
he simply nails the songs hero like nobody ever has. Poor ol Jed is like a cross between the Ice Cream Kid and the character portrayed in The Bands The Weight and if youre really gonna tell the tale, you have to have lived the life. The 69-year-old Helm has been there and back hes just the man to tell Jeds story.
But Tennessee Jed is only the beginning: elsewhere we find slinky-backbone blues (witness Jimmy Vivino and Campbells guitar duel on Move Along Train or the too-cool vocal harmonies on When I Go Away), sweet dirt road blues (check out Campbells fierce mandolin break on You Cant Lose What You Never Had or Brian Mitchells wild-ass accordion on Stuff You Gotta Watch), and beautiful back-porch gospel (Heavens Pearls, thick with horns or the joyous hope of I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free). And, of course, throughout it all is Helms powerful drumming and core-of-the-soul vocals.
Larry Campbell (with help from Levons daughter Amy) produced Electric Dirt with Justin Guip (the man responsible for the sound at Helms Midnight Rambles) engineering. Helm has likened the all-wood construction of his studio/home barn to that of a big guitar if so, then Guip and Campbell are masters at playing the barn. On the whole, Electric Dirt captures the sound and vibe of one of Helms now-famous Saturday-night sessions.
Back in the heyday of The Band, Levon Helm may have known what it was like to have access to the rock star life but he never forgot his roots. Even in his wild years, this cat was never a phony.
Now he may be a granddaddy (and a throat cancer survivor), but Levon Helm has lost none of his fire and passion.
This is the voice of the Real Deal.