A perfect setting
Reviewed November 2007
By Levon Helm
Vanguard Records: 2007
To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.
I pulled into Nazareth,
I was feelin 'bought half past dead,
I just need to find a place,
Where I can lay my head.
I said, "Mister can you tell me,
Where I might find a bed?"
He just grinned and shook his head,
"No," was all he said.
So sang Levon Helm, with his unmistakable southern twang, on The Band's debut album, "Music From Big Pink" (Capitol Records, 1968). At the time of that album's appearance, The Band had gained near mythical status from their stint as Bob Dylan's backup band. The music on that recording debut (if you don't count their fiery backing of Ronnie Hawkins as the Hawks, on early '60s hits like "Who Do You Love" and "Mary Lou") had a sometimes murky, mysterious and always timeless feel. The group, with three very distinctive and different vocalists Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, along with multiple instrumentalist Garth Hudson and the terse but succinct and often incendiary guitarist and visionary leader Robbie Robertson put out two masterpieces: the aforementioned debut and "The Band" (Capitol Records, 1969).
After The Band's breakup in 1976, Helm went on to record several solo albums, but he's been silent in terms of solo studio discography for twenty-five years. Until now, with the release of "Dirt Farmer."
The cover photo is a shot of Helm in front of a planted field. His gaze is cast downward, his mouth set in a grim, tight line a "dirt farmer" contemplating losing his crop, perhaps. He looks every day of his sixty-seven years, and it appears that a bunch of those years were tough ones. And indeed, there were hard times. Manuel committed suicide in 1986 while on tour with the regrouped Band (sans Robertson); and Danko died of natural causes in 1999. Helm himself battled throat cancer that took his voice from him, and almost stole his home recording studio in Woodstock, New York (it's hard to pay the bills and the medical expenses at the same time).
But the voice is back, after several silent years that Helm spent backing The Barnburners on drums and holding Midnight Rambles: small, intimate, all-star concerts in the barn/recording studio at his home in Woodstock shows that helped put him back on sound financial ground, and led, ultimately, to the creation of "Dirt Farmer," an album that Helm was put on this earth to make.
This is vibrant, laid-back, acoustic, sittin' on the back porch picking and strummin' stuff. Fiddle, mandolin, guitar, accordion and sweet gospel-tinged vocals weave in and out of the mix behind Levon's renewed down-home Arkansas wail. Like The Band at its best, "Dirt Farmer" mixes country sounds and Cajun waltzes with and rock and roll and R&B, on timeless tunes about false-hearted lovers and farmers who can't get a loan, broken-backed coal miners, train robberies and bodies wrecked by corn whiskey.
Helm put out some pretty good solo albums after The Band broke up, but none of them were recorded with the spare, loose-jointed country beauty and continuity of vision that producers Larry Campbell (ex-Dylan guitarist) and Levon's daughter Amy Helm bring to "Dirt Farmer," a set that showcases an original American voice in the perfect setting.
Review by Dan McClenaghan. Dan is a writer living in Oceanside, Calif. Read his biography on his AllAboutJazz.com page.