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Posted: June 10, 2009

Levon Helm opens for John Prine at Red Rocks,

Plus new music from the dB's leaders and the Eels and a free Marcia Ball concert in Louisville

Mike Cote

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LEVON HELM Electric Dirt (Dirt Farmer Music/Vanguard)

The idyllic setting depicted on the cover of Levon Helm's new album suggests peace and tranquility, a farmer sitting on the front porch of a tiny house playing guitar as bouncy musical notes and fire-red lightning bolts float into a sunny sky. That may be Helm's state of mind and life right now, but it was a hard time coming. The Band's drummer and signature singer was sidelined by throat cancer in 1998. So listening to his second solo album in a little more than two years -- with his voice having regained much of its strength -- is one of those unexpected joys. (The album comes out on June 30.)

Electric Dirt, the sequel to 2007's Grammy-winning Dirt Farmer, mines much of the same territory as its predecessor, with the only nuance being a somewhat more contemporary setlist than the largely traditional material Helm tackled last time around. Backed by many of the same players, including producer/guitarist Larry Campbell and harmony vocalist Amy Helm (the singer's daughter), Helm brings an Americana stamp to songs by such diverse sources as the Grateful Dead ("Tennessee Jed"), Randy Newman ("Kingfish"), the Staples Singers ("Move Along Train") and Muddy Waters ("Stuff You Gotta Watch" and "You Can't Lose What You Ain't Never Had").

Despite the title, these are largely acoustic songs, often laced with Campbell's fiddle or Helm's mandolin. Though Helm has recovered, you can hear the strain in his haunting delivery of Happy Traum's ballad "Golden Bird" and to a lesser extent on "Growin' Trade (a song he co-wrote with Campbell), But his dampened voice remains mighty in its ability to evoke heartache and hard-won wisdom. That struggle to sing is less obvious in the upbeat Waters' tunes -- which sound like the kind of tunes a solitary farmer would be playing from the front porch.

Levon Helm performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 13, at Red Rocks Amphitheatre on a bill with John Prine. Tickets are $50 and $59.50 plus services charges.

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PETER HOLSAPPLE AND CHRIS STAMEY Here and Now (Bar None)

On their first album together in nearly 20 years, the singing and songwriting team from '70s/'80s power pop heroes the dB's deliver a gentle, acoustic-based album shimmering with tight vocals harmonies and fine pop songcraft. Songs like Stamey's "Santa Monica," whose melancholic, world-weary verses are lifted by a pop-friendly chorus, and Holsapple's quirky title track, an autiobiographical tune that seems penned as much for he and his partner as it was for long-time fans, recaptures the essence of songs with memorable hooks and heartfelt playing. and these guys aren't afraid of singing about their moment in time, with Holsapple poring over obituaries ("Early in the Morning") and Stamey writing a coda to one ("Song for Johnny Cash"). Support players include the other members of the dB's and sax icon Branford Marsalis.

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THE EELS Hombre Lobo (Vagrant)

Mark Everett, who first recorded under the moniker "E" before forming the Eels in the early '90s, has made career out of writing melancholy, sometimes morbid songs ("Mr. E's Beautiful Blues," "Novacaine for the Soul," "Now You're Really Livin'''). Every Eels album usually has at least one or two songs that shear off some of the rough edges for pop radio. Hombre Lobo, subtitled "12 Songs of Desire" takes a different tact, as Everett and his band focus on love songs laced with deep longing -- and plenty of distortion. E's brand of love songs examine the possibility of what might be but likely won't with apt titles like "That Look You Give That Guy," "What's A Fella Gotta Do" and "My Timing Is Off." Everett mines this territory so well you don't really want him to ever get the girl. Who but a wolf man can sing better songs about loneliness?

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Extra: Don't miss Marcia Ball on Friday at a free concert in Louisville.

Getting to talking with blues piano queen Marcia Ball at a fundraiser for New Orleans at the Fillmore in Denver last summer was one of the highlights of my Democratic National Convention experience (right up there with shaking Michelle Obama's hand at Invesco Field after she was interviewed by Katie Couric.) Ball had just played a show in Frisco on a bill with Blue Oyster Cult (yikes!) so she was happy to be sharing the stage with her old Crescent City pals like Irma Thomas and Tab Benoit. 

Catch the Texarkana-bred singer and piano player at a free concert as part of Louisville's Street Faire series on Friday. The music begins around 6 p.m. You can bet I'll be there. In the meantime, catch Ball live in KBCO's Studio C after 11 a.m. on Thursday.

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Mike Cote is the former editor of ColoradoBiz. E-mail him at mcote@cobizmag.com.

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