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Levon Helm & the Barn Burners

April 28, 2000, Chip's Roadhouse, Winder, GA

by Matt Thompson

From Flagpole magazine, May 2000. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.

Levon Helm and the Barn Burners.
"Back in 1967 or '68, I heard a record called Music From Big Pink and it changed my life. It changed the course of American music." So said Eric Clapton back in 1992 during the all-star celebration honoring Bob Dylan's 30-some-odd years in music. The group Clapton spoke of was, of course, The Band and he wasn't just whistling Dixie. Said record encouraged the man some call God to move away from the bombastic blues noodling he played with Cream and John Mayhall to a more restrained, rootsy sound he perfected by Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, quite possibly one of the best rock albums of all time. In addition, The Band's bull-headed allegiance to American roots music not only spelled the welcomed death knell of psychedelic music, but also spearheaded a roots vibe that spans from Gram Parsons to Lynyrd Skynyrd to the Blasters to Uncle Tupelo to the Bottle Rockets. Not bad for a bunch of Canadians and one Arkansas good ol' boy.

Oddly enough, around the same time EC was spilling his guts, yours truly had a similar awakening. It was in Memphis on a hot and humid Friday night in May. Standing ankle deep in mud and wood chips and surrounded by teenyboppers waiting for 311, I saw The Band for the first time. Sure, guitarist Robbie Robertson was long gone and piano man Richard Manuel had shuffled off this mortal coil, but it was like something whacked me upside the head with a battered dulcimer. All of a sudden it made sense. "Roots rock" made sense. Bob Dylan made sense. Country music - though I'd been a fan since childhood - made even more sense, particularly when cast in a rock mode. Call it an epiphany, call it illumination or call it just plain old opening of a closed mind, but that night I was transformed into a Band fan, and you better believe it, bubba.

In that light, seeing (and, admittedly, interviewing) Levon Helm again live was a full-blown gonzo of a treat. It wasn't with The Band. No, that august organization is gone, what with the recent death of bassist Rick Danko. Helm's new outfit, the Barnburners, plays hard-core blues with a light swing touch. In a sense, it's like the Band reborn, as both outfits perform the music of their mentors.

To be honest, the Barnburners, recruited from Helm's Woodstock home, made for an above-average, if unspectacular, "white boy" blues band this evening. Lead vocalist Chris O'Leary had a pleasant enough, if somewhat hammy, baritone that served the blues well, but damn, the boy could blow a mean harp. Guitarist Pat O'Shea whipped out some swing-blues licks, and the bassman Frank Ingrayo played the upright like it should have been played: sans slapping. However, it is the man himself who sets the Barnburners above the blues-belching pack.

Jesus H. Christ, Levon Helm is a drummer. Not being a musician myself, I really can't explain it, except to say everything sounds right. Every snare shot, every tinky-tinky-tink on the cymbal and every beat-dragging bass drum lick just fit in perfectly. It was intuitive and instinctive, as natural to Levon Helm as breathing. You keep your Neil Pearts and Lars Ulriches; Helm is the man I want keeping time for me.

Another pleasant surprise was the vocal talents of Helm's daughter Amy. A rather fetching young lady (my brother and frequent concert companion has declared his undying love for the lass), Amy Helm had a powerfully soulful set of pipes that was purer than her old man's ragged vocals, yet richer than most one would hear from any modern-day chanteuse. This kid will go places; she's got the look, the pipes and the moves. Mi hermano doesn't give his heart away to just anyone, kids.

Of course, the music was superb. A smattering of originals mixed in with blues standards: Muddy Waters' "I'm Ready" and Rice Miller's "Help Me," among others. No Band songs, however. Levon suffered from throat cancer last year, his speaking voice reduced to a harsh croak and his singing voice the way of the dodo. A little Howlin' Wolf there and some Louis Jordan here, however, and the crowd at Chip's was quite pleased, thank you. A neat little roadhouse blues club way out in the middle of nowhere Winder, Chip's was the perfect place for this sort of stuff. It had the atmosphere and the look for the blues, and believe me, I know from whence I speak.

When the show was over, Levon Helm seemed to have aged all his 58 years. Tired, sweaty but happy, the man made every effort to accommodate those graced by the blues, tired as he was, whether it a fellow survivor of the '60s or some awestruck rock critic punk kid. Behind those drums, though, the best seat in the house, with his arms swinging wildly yet perfectly, Levon Helm was living through the music and letting it live through him. The wheel goes back around once more. Works for me.

--Matt Thompson

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