CD reviews: Levon Helm cranks it up
July 23, 2009
With his 2007 album “Dirt Farmer,” Levon Helm, the former singer-drummer of the Band, followed many of his contemporaries down the road of acoustic music. It was understandable: Helm was at the age – 67 then – where volume was a concern, and, like Elvis Costello and Hot Tuna, he became interested in making a closer exploration of the music that had gotten to him early on. In the case of Helm, it was a graceful transition; “Dirt Farmer” earned a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.But Helm takes a step in the other direction on “Electric Dirt.” The volume is pumped up – not to the rock ‘n’ roll levels of the ’60s, but there are electric guitars and horn sections to go with the fiddles and mandolins, and Helm is, at times, pounding the drums. Beyond the instrumentation, there is a different sonic spirit: Where “Dirt Farmer” was an overt move toward the rural tradition of sitting around the campfire, “Electric Dirt” has a greater desire to reach out and rock. That begins with the first song, a rollicking take on the Grateful Dead’s “Tennessee Jed” that finds Helm as distinguished a vocalist as he was on “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” There are still unplugged moments here, especially “Golden Bird,” led by Larry Campbell’s fiddle, and Helm continues to reach into the past for material (Carter Stanley, Muddy Waters). But it is also a pleasure to hear Helm quit acting his age, and crank up the music.
You might have to get over a few hurdles with “Some Assembly Required,” from upstate New York singer-songwriter Reid Genauer and his latest ensemble, Assembly of Dust. The first is the roster of guest stars: Every song on the album features a sit-in appearance, and most of the guests – Bla Fleck, Richie Havens, John Scofield, Phish bassist Mike Gordon – are far more prominent than Genauer. It makes you worry that the guests will overwhelm the band whose name is on the CD cover. But Assembly of Dust does an impressive job of incorporating the guest players into their sound.The other hurdle is that Assembly of Dust’s sound can be very derivative. The album opens with “All That I Am,” whose modern country-rock strains could well fool you into thinking that Ryan Adams has released yet another CD. When he’s not sounding like Adams, Genauer spends his time sounding a lot like My Morning Jacket singer Jim James.The good news is that both of these bars are clearable. “Assembly of Dust” comes off, if not always wholly original, as an enjoyable shot of roots rock, much in the manner of that upstate New York group of old, the Band.
Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins hooks up here, musically, with Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Weird, huh? A young American fiddler-singer known for playing acoustic music getting together with a rocker known for playing loud, bombastic music.Not nearly as weird as the fact that Watkins is not the first female singer-fiddler from a high-profile American acoustic act to collaborate recently with a former member of Led Zep. Alison Krauss, leader of Alison Krauss + Union Station, and Zep singer Robert Plant won the 2009 Album of the Year Grammy for their project, “Raising Sand.” What’s next: Carrie Rodriguez and Jimmy Page?As the name indicates, “Sara Watkins” sticks to Watkins’ territory, of forward-looking acoustic music. Jones sticks mainly to production – and a fairly light and tasteful hand at that – adding bass to a few songs, vocals to another. He is one of many guests who help make this a nice romp through Western swing, bluegrass, gospel, old-timey songs and a wee bit of rock. Watkins’ voice is a treat, her fiddling has many moods, and the guests – Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, mandolinist Ronnie McCoury, and Benmont Tench, keyboardist of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers – coalesce nicely. “Sara Watkins” won’t win the 2010 Grammy for Album of the Year; that would be too weird. But expect it to get a nomination in one of the folk email@example.com