The triumph behind Levon Helm's wonderful 2007 album Dirt Farmer wasn't that it helped put a Grammy in the hands of the former drummer, mandolinist and co-vocalist for The Band.
The prize it gave to everyone was the return of Helm's singing voice — a rural, potent vocal instrument of Southern design that had been largely silenced in preceding years during a battle with throat cancer. But Helm prevailed.
First he assembled a band made up of performers who assisted with the fabled Midnight Ramble concerts staged at his Woodstock, N.Y., recording studios. Then he returned to active recording duty with an album that championed the folk and country roots aspects of The Band's mighty Americana journey. The Grammy was simply a bonus.
That was less than two years ago. Now we have Electric Dirt, an album we might be led to believe is more of a rock 'n' roll outing. And in some ways, it is. But it conveys rock inspirations the way Dirt Farmer leaned on pre-bluegrass country muses.
Electric Dirt's feel is loose, soulful and ceaselessly earnest, as in the way The Grateful Dead's mischievous Tennessee Jed is reborn with a huge percussive strut reminiscent of vintage Little Feat. But above it all is that reconstituted voice — a proud, exuberant singing implement that reflects a smidgen of age (at 69, Helm is entitled) even though the sheer gusto and vigor of his vocal work is positively ageless.
That's especially true of Helm's take on Randy Newman's Kingfish. When Newman sang the Huey Long-inspired tune on his classic 1974 album Good Old Boys, the music couldn't help but sound sardonic. In Helm's hands, Kingfish becomes more playful, with singing that reaches for the heavens just as profoundly as when he made those boundless vocal leaps on The Band's Ophelia nearly 35 years ago.
Helm has some able help on Electric Dirt, too — namely, the very complementary production of Larry Campbell, stirring harmonies from Ollabelle's Amy Helm (the singer's daughter) and Teresa Williams (Campbell's wife) and, most of all, horn arrangements full of Louisiana soul by Allen Toussaint. In addition to being one of New Orleans' most celebrated musical elders, Toussaint scored horn charts for The Band on its extraordinary 1972 concert album Rock of Ages.
Roots generations happily collide from there. Helm takes on a pair of mandolin-charged Muddy Waters gems, Stuff You Gotta Watch, which he previously covered on the underrated 1993 Band reunion album Jericho, and You Can't Lose What You Never Had. Father-and-daughter Helm later turn Ollabelle's Heaven's Pearls into a suitably sanctified family hymn, with Ollabelle bassist Byron Isaacs adding both to the tune's plaintive cast and the entire album's rootsy drive.
If there was a pick of this righteous crop, though, the honor would go to I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free, the popular spiritual first cut in 1967 by Nina Simone (it has been revisited more recently by such varied artists as Solomon Burke and Derek Trucks). With another Toussaint horn arrangement backing him, Helm sings of emancipation and jubilation in equal terms. But one can't help but think the song has a more personal resolve for Helm, as well. "I sing because I know I would see you," he shouts with reverence in the last verse. Given how this voice couldn't sing at all for a time, the restorative energy of this music is all the more remarkable just as the dirt under its muddy, rootsy boots is all the more electric.