Electric Dirt

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Article Reviews

Levon Helm (Vanguard Records, 2009)

Beginning in 1969, Levon Helm, with his mates in The Band, helped save rock and roll from psychedelia and all its pomps. In a world crazed by fads and fashions, songs like "The Weight" and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" sounded 100 years old.

And that was the point. The music was an amalgam of gospel, blues, and hillbilly traditions, and the high, lonesome yearning in Helm's Arkansas-bred voice provided the seal of authenticity.

Recently that iconic voice appeared lost. Helm developed throat cancer, and after surgery and radiation he couldn't even speak. Slowly, however, his voice returned. The cancer stayed away, and last year Helm celebrated his vocal rebirth with Dirt Farmer, which won a Grammy for best traditional folk album.

On Electric Dirt Helm's voice has regained more of its old force, and his drumming is back at the center of his music. As the title suggests, Electric Dirt extends Dirt Farmer's reverence for tradition to more recent influences-from Randy Newman to The Grateful Dead.

With a full crew of traditional stringed instruments, accordion, and sometimes a horn section, Helm synthesizes this disparate material into a single sound. The music rollicks and weeps and, often, like a New Orleans jazz funeral, does both at the same time.

There's a great deal of the church in this album. "Move Along Train" and "When I Go Away" are traditional gospel songs, but the thirst for transcendence is perhaps most clearly expressed in jazz singer Nina Simone's "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free."

For Simone, the song was a civil rights anthem. Four decades later, in Helm's voice, the lyric's wish to remove "all the bars that keep us apart" and have a chance "to give what I'm longing to give" becomes a timeless statement of yearning for fulfillment and community.