25 December 2007

Enthusiasms (13) ~ Levon Helm

Sometimes they work, oftentimes not. Compare Natalie Merchant's The House Carpenter's Daughter or Mavis Staples's We'll Never Turn Back both of which really do with Ry Cooder's My Name is Buddy which just as clearly doesn't. My friend Susan and I have talked several times about how sometimes records of "traditional" tunes work extremely well and often they don't. The latter sound stilted and revivalist, the former as though the musicians have the tunes in their souls.

It is no surprise that this new CD by Levon Helm works exceptionally well. Nearly half of the tunes are traditional numbers that Helm has arranged; the remainder of the record consists of original tunes by musucians on the date or covers of tunes - "new standards" - by songwriters who are among my very favorites (e.g., Steve Earle, Buddy & Julie Miller).

I can remember hearing Helm and his co-conspirators in The Band on Music From Big Pink as a thirteen year-old listening to the wonderful, long-defunct WGRG-FM in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts. (In addition to playing great music, WGRG aired a critical "news and comment" segment several times daily that I suspect influenced by views about how media might actually work if it ignored "format.")

Levon Helm's voice is still as expresively soulful as it was on that first listen. And in a sign that "great minds think alike" Susan and I inadvertantly bought one another Dirt Farmer for Christmas.

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