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Larry Campbell: On making music with Levon Helm and Bob Dylan

Larry Campbell
Courtesy of Paul LaRaia
Larry Campbell

At a swanky gala last September in Nashville, veteran guitarist and music producer Larry Campbell was presented a lifetime achievement award by the Americana Music Association. When a musician with over 30 years of professional experience starts collecting awards, he can contemplate the significance any number of ways:

"Where will this lead?"

"Who will be pestering me now?"

"Career over."

In Campbell’s case, none of these apply. He’s too busy working on new projects at present to be concerned with legacy or future. That’s because the man who presented him with the lifetime achievement award — Levon Helm — is on a roll.

Helm is, of course, a co-founder of the influential 1970s rock/folk group The Band. He is known for his riveting singing voice and drumming style that was featured prominently on many of The Band's recordings, such as "Up on Cripple Creek," "The Weight," and "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down."

'Electric Dirt' due out at the end of June
But it is Helm’s current work that is keeping Campbell busy these days. Campbell played on and co-produced Helm’s Grammy-winning 2007 recording, "Dirt Farmer," and has just completed a follow-up for Helm, "Electric Dirt," due out at the end of June. Campbell produced "Electric Dirt" over eight months at Helm’s recording and performance compound in Woodstock, N.Y.

In advance of the release, Helm and his combo have just set out on a tour that lands at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul on Wednesday. Helm will perform work from the new recording as well as favorites from The Band catalog. Campbell is playing on the tour as well as serving as musical director, managing the musicians and song arrangements.

To use a baseball analogy, Larry Campbell is making the most of his at-bats.

"I wanted this new project to be much more dynamic, more responsive," Campbell says. "Levon is so much more than 'Dirt Farmer,' and I wanted to show the facets of his musical and vocal talents."

The perfect blend
Campbell said it was difficult to find a cohesive set of songs that would showcase the combination of Helm’s repertoire of blues, soul, rock, and folk. But he feels he found the perfect blend with "Electric Dirt."

"I tried to showcase the different styles through the songs, without it sounding like a hodgepodge," he said.

On this latest recording Campbell was very careful to introduce the nuances of Helm’s talents while trying to maintain a sound similar to "those old Band records." He learned how powerful that iconic current is while working on "Dirt Farmer."

"The 'Dirt Farmer' project was basically, 'Let’s play songs that Levon likes and see what happens.' As soon as he opened his mouth you were put in an organic place, you immediately recognized his special talent and relationship to music. The creation was really more of a folk music record. And Levon’s musical history is so much more varied than that.”

Nuances of recording
Being the recording producer for a legendary singing voice means being particularly careful with the acoustic elements of the recording. Too much of any one instrument in the mix can easily overpower or distract from the vocal line, even with a voice as distinct as Helm’s. For this reason Campbell steadfastly resisted the temptation to rely too heavily on modern electronic innovations and computer technology in the studio, which he says can strip the humanity from the music.

"The challenge is not to lose the beauty of the art," Campbell says. "The interplay between the musicians, their call and response, even the mistakes. A lot of those things are part of the human connection to the music and can be lost if you rely too heavily on computers and software programs. You have to use that technology, sure, but you have to keep sight of the art in the music." (Campbell talks about the album on the YouTube clip "Levon Helm: The Making of Electric Dirt.")

Campbell says he is very much looking forward to his brief stop in St. Paul.

"There’s a real comfort level I have playing in Minnesota that I don’t get in other places. The people seem to appreciate the music more; they know the musicians."

Greatest Minnesota memory
Campbell has been through Minnesota many times during his performing career, on tour with the likes of Roseanne Cash, k.d. lang, and others. But Campbell says his greatest Minnesota memory took place on October 22, 1998, while a member of the Bob Dylan band, at a "homecoming" performance back in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth. Campbell was part of the Dylan posse during a period of intense creative release, playing on Dylan’s "Love and Theft" (2001) and touring with him from 1997 until 2004. Despite the passage of time, he remains careful with his words when talking about the Dylan Experience.

"So much has been written about that guy (Dylan). Ultimately it was a great experience. I haven’t quite figured out that experience to be able to put it into words yet. It was an alternate universe. I certainly don’t regret doing it at all. It was a bunch of great musicians."

The recording process with Bob Dylan couldn’t have been more different from what he’s now experiencing with Levon Helm. Helm tends to work when the spirit moves — over a period of months at times — while recording with Dylan consisted of several two-week sessions of intense work. Both experiences created memorable musical results, but Campbell is very much focused on his current production.

"I am happy with 'Electric Dirt.' I’m thrilled with it, actually. We’ve managed to represent important features of what Levon is all about. He’s the perfect muse for my creativity."

The Levon Helm Band. Wednesday, June 10, at 7:30 p.m. Fitzgerald Theater, 10 E. Exchange St. St. Paul. Tickets: $57.

Eric Olson is an Emmy Award-winning journalist who lives in Hermantown, Minn.

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