THE ALBUM -- Levon Helm, "American Son," MCA (MCA-5120).; THE SHOW -- With Bonnie Raitt, at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, Augst 20 at 7:30.
"I was sorry to see it end," Levon Helm said recently of the Band, the group he sang and played drums with from 1962 until its breakup in 1978. "I like to think we'll get back together."
It would be a pleasure indeed to see Arkansan Helm and his four Canadian cronies reunite, especially when you contrast the exhilirating music the Band produced with the drab sounds on "American Son," Helm's latest and third solo release.
Where does the album go wrong? Helm is unquestionably an excellent musician. The cast of back-up players, including guitarist Fred Carter Jr., steel guitarist Buddy Emmons, and drummer Kenny Buttrey, is highly reputable. Carter's production is bone clean. So what happened?
The problem seems to lie in the choice of songs. Helm could have really scored big had he chosen a line-up of tunes from his rock'n' roll and country roots, the kind of songs he can squeeze every drop of emotion out of (as for example, on "Baby Don't You Do It" from the Band's Rock of Ages")
On "American Son," he unfortunately opts for banal songs and writers that are almost entirely (and deservedly) unknown. Helm has little to work with, and the album suffers for it. On most of the album, particularly "Hurricane," "Stay With Me," "Dance Me Down Easy," and "Sweet Peach Georgia Wine," he sounds like Jerry Reed's little brother.A sad fate for the vocalist who immortalized "Up on Cripple Creek," "The Weight," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."
The last number on side one, "American's Farm," deserves special notice, for its incredibly trite lyrics. Helm, or rather composer Ronnie Rogers, warns us that "we're playing 'round, losing ground" and "things are looking bad in my town." Meanwhile, we're "sleeping and there's so much to do."
Sounds like Jimmy Carter's American Malaise speech of last summer, doesn't it? Or maybe even a new theme song for the Reagan campaign. In fact, a later verse urges:
I say it's time we face the fact
Somewhere our train has jumped the track.
We've got to stop standing still,
We need a good engineer at the wheel.
Actually, it's Levon Helm who has jumped the track. One only hopes that his next album -- and next week's concert -- will include the type of material that marked his career with the Band. As for the songs on "American Son," Helm and his fans deserve better.