Friday, December 07, 2007


A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
December 7, 2007

Here’s a nice little Christmas miracle for you (that doesn’t really have anything to do with Christmas.)

Back in the late 1990s, Levon Helm — best known as singer/drummer/mandolinist of The Band — came down with throat cancer.It left his once-mighty voice a pathetic rasp. He was unable to sing for many years. When he came through Santa Fe in 2001 with the Barn Burners, he was just the drummer.

But the 67-year-old Helm has nursed his vocal cords back to health, and his new solo album, Dirt Farmer, shows him in fine form. The voice that brought us “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is back.

More good news: the material on Dirt Farmer is worthy of that voice. No, it’s not in the same stratosphere as the songs on those classic albums by The Band. But Helm has assembled a fine batch of tunes — including works by Steve Earle, Buddy and Julie Miller, the late Chicago bluesman J.B. Lenoir, British songwriter Paul Kennerley, and the Carter Family. There’s not a weak song here.

And Levon’s put together a tight little band featuring his daughter, Amy Helm, on harmony vocals (and drums and mandolin on some tracks) and guitarist Larry Campbell (a Bob Dylan sideman in recent years).

As the title of the album implies, Dirt Farmer has an acoustic country feel. There’s lots of fiddle (played by Campbell), mandolin, accordion, and pump organ, which gives an old country-church feel to some songs, like the Millers’ “Wide River to Cross.”

The album starts off with a spirited rendition of “False-Hearted Lover Blues,” which Helm says in the liner notes is a tribute to the Stanley Brothers, but it also has some dark edges of Doc Boggs.

Helms’ voice always has been suited for historical songs. Here he sings Kennerley’s “A Train Robbery,” which deals with the career of Jesse James. (It originally appeared as a bonus track on the CD rerelease of Kennerley’s 1980 song cycle The Legend of Jesse James, a various-artists project in which Helms participated.) “We all know he was nothing but a Missouri farm boy just fighting to stay alive,” Helms sings ofthe famous outlaw.

“Poor Old Dirt Farmer” is a traditional song performed as a Cajun waltz. It’s about a farmer who can’t pay his loan, can’t grow his corn, and ain’t got no home. The story grows more bizarre. There’s a tractor accident: “And now his head is shaped like a tread. But he ain’t quite dead.”

That song gave the album its title, but the real theme song is Lenoir’s “Feeling Good.” Levon trades vocals with Amy (her solo vocal parts remind me a lot of Carrie Rodriguez), and this upbeat blues is a triumphant declaration for him.

It’s great to hear Helm’s voice again.

Also recommended:

* Revival by John Fogerty. This has been hailed as a “comeback” album, even though Fogerty’s been doing comeback albums since1985’s Centerfield. Part of the hoopla is due simply to the title of the record, plus the fact that there’s a song called “Creedence Song.”

It’s true, Fogerty sounds a lot like Creedence Clearwater Revival here. But he always sounds a lot like Creedence Clearwater Revival. I know there were other members of the band who contributed, but face it — as singer, songwriter, and lead guitarist, Fogerty was for all practical purposes Creedence Clearwater Revival.

But forget that particular hype. This is a darn good album, better than his last comeback album, 2004’s Déjà Vu All Over Again.

As you might expect from the man who wrote “Fortunate Son” and “Run Through the Jungle,” there are some pig-bitin’ protest songs on Revival. I know that I panned R.E.M.’s recent protest songs just last week. The main difference is that Fogerty’s tunes rock even harder than they preach.

Fogerty names names on “Long Dark Night”: “Rummie’s in the kitchen/Messin’ with the pans/Dickie’s in the back/Stealin’ everythinghe can. ... Runnin’ down the highway/Shoutin’ to the Lord/Georgie’s got religion/And you know we can’t/Afford more years.”

Even more driving is “I Can’t Take it No More.” Fogerty has a personal message for the president with a stinging reference to a Creedence song: “I bet you never saw the ol’ school yard/I bet you never saw the National Guard/Your daddy wrote a check and there you are/Another fortunate son.” (Hey, I wrote years ago that “Fortunate Son” was the first song ever written about the current president, though Fogerty didn’t know it at the time.)

“Gunslinger” bites even harder. It’s a tune about an Old West town —or a whole nation. Its people’s spirits have been broken by the “wild-eyed bunch” who moved in. “This used to be a peaceful place/Decent folks, hardworkin’ ways/Now they hide behind locked doors/Afraid to speak their mind. ... Wrecked the paper/Closed the school/Tired old judge got roughed up too/No one left to make a stand/They whisper what’s the use.”

The remedy, Fogerty says, is a “gunslinger” to “tame this town” and bring justice. The precursor to this song is Neil Young’s “Looking for a Leader.” But “Gunslinger” is more artful.

Of course, all isn’t politics and protest here. There are some sweet love songs, like “Broken-Down Cowboy” and “Natural Thing.”

My only complaint with Revival is the overt sense of nostalgia. I can take the self-referential “Creedence Song.” Here the narrator isn’t rock star John Fogerty, but a kid whose dad was a rocker who won his mother’s love by playing Creedence songs. But harder to justify is “Summer of Love,” which talks about “freedom in the air” and “flower children lookin’ for the truth.” Fogerty even sneaks in a “Sunshine of Your Love” guitar lick.

Come on, gunslinger. You shoot a lot straighter when you’re looking ahead.

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