Levon Helm: Dirt Farmer (Dirt Farmer/Vanguard)
To say it is his best solo album is understating the case. It virtually wipes out all his previous solo album as well as those by the reformed Band.
The first time most people heard Levon Helm sing was way back in 1968 when The Band released Music From Big Pink. You had to wait until the end of side one to hear him, and the song was the album’s most accessible, “The Weight.” The song was at once out front but also vague and mysterious in a Dylan-esque sort of way. Helm’s voice was an immediate grabber drawing you into the lyrics in which the singer always seemed to lose. His voice summoned all of American roots-based music all at once, country, blues, folk, gospel, somehow adding up to rock ’n’ roll and perfect for storytelling. Helm’s storytelling would later be put to excellent use in the film, The Right Stuff as well as a couple of music documentaries, one detailing the music to be found on Highway 61.
When the original version of The Band dissolved in 1976, Helm released a succession of solo albums. The first Levon Helm & the RCO All-Stars looked great on paper. Surrounding himself with some of the greatest blues and R&B players, at the time, three-fourths of Booker T & the MGs, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield, and several the of the top New York session horn players, the album promised more than it delivered. It was tight, it was funky, the songs for the most part were there, but that undefined spark, the magic that should have taken it higher was curiously missing.
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In concert, they appeared unrehearsed with key members not showing up. Helm’s next eponymous album found him diving even deeper into R&B, and while he’s pictured holding drumsticks on the cover, he’s not listed as playing drums. Again surrounded by some of the greatest R&B session guys, it was in the good, but not great category. At the time, I wondered why Helm’s excellent cover of “Take Me To The River” was ignored on FM rock radio in favor the Talking Heads’ rendition.