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Album Review

Levon Helm, 'Electric Dirt'

June 29, 2009
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Roots
Levon Helm Electric Dirt
Vanguard
ESSENTIAL “Tennessee Jed’’
Levon Helm opens for the Black Crowes at the Bank of America Pavilion on Aug. 28.

You want an ideal marriage? Try the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed’’ in the hands of Levon Helm. Great idea, greater execution. Happily, there are more perfect fits on this ear-opening new disc from the longtime drummer of the Band. Helm survived throat cancer to release “Dirt Farmer’’ two years ago; it was filled with rural tunes from his youth and earned a Grammy for best traditional folk recording. But this follow-up has a more lively batch of songs recalling the Helm we know and love from his rocking days. It is aptly named “Electric Dirt,’’ and the songs range from sharply etched blues-rock (two Muddy Waters tunes) to contemporary folk, gospel, and a New Orleans-flavored take on “Tennessee Jed.’’ Once again, former Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell serves as producer, and he opens up the throttle to a bolder sound. Helm continues to grow stronger, while his daughter Amy (of the group Ollabelle) adds sweeping harmonies. Helm does some co-writing, but it’s the covers that shine, such as a stomping version of Waters’s “Stuff You Gotta Watch’’ (about a woman who “steals your dope’’ and drinks your gin) and the heartfelt gospel of the Staples Singers’ “Move Along Train.’’ Helm blends the secular and gospel worlds with an almost seamless precision. Fans of the Band will love this. (Out tomorrow) STEVE MORSE