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Helm's Delta Blues Delights

by Michael Eck

This article first appeared in the Albany Times Union, Sunday, January 16, 2000. Copyright © 2000, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y. Please do not copy or redistribute.


When: 7 p.m. Saturday. Where: The Egg, Empire State Plaza, Albany. Musical highlights: It's a highlight whenever Helm sits down behind a drum kit, but the young bucks in the band stole the spotlight with some serious testifying on Muddy Waters' ``I'm Ready.''

Levon Helm and the Barn Burners made their first big splash at Blues-Aid in Tunica, Miss., and they've been wowing audiences since then with a firm command of the electric end of the delta blues. They made light work of the same Saturday night at The Egg -- in the first of three shows that comprise the Mid-Winter Blues Festival.

Chicago blues, as we know it, actually came up out of the delta in the '30s and '40s, exploding into regional popularity in the '50s with the success of legends like Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. The Barn Burners sound as though they've been up and down that blues route, from New Orleans to the Southside, and Saturday they doled out shuffles, jumps and crawls with equal aplomb.

Helm, of course, has been up and down just about every road in his four decades with The Band. His famous voice has recently been quieted by throat problems though, and now Helm is happy to just be in back bashing away on the skins -- driving his new band with a young man's fire and a craftsman's well-learned skill.

The Band borrowed from the blues, but rarely dished out quite so heavy or traditionally as the Barn Burners. The young guns in the band know their roots though, and they easily kept pace with Helm -- swinging hard, playing hard and, in the case of vocalist/harmonicat Chris O'Leary, blowing hard, too.

O'Leary and guitarslinger Pat O'Shea would light up just about any roadhouse with their tag-team dynamics; famous drummer or no famous drummer.

O'Leary, who bears a vocal resemblance to the Fabulous T-Birds' Kim Wilson, wailed his harp through a little Fender amp, pushing out classic Little Walter licks and James Cotton jabs and even croaking out the vocals Wolf-style through his requisite Green Bullet microphone.

O'Shea, in turn, romped out his fancy chords and sinewy lines through a big old jazz box, giving the band in toto a darker sound and a richer tone than many blues outfits.

The real news was when the two cracked together like a whip -- sending the message of Waters' ``I'm Ready'' home with a snap, and gracing it with a hard-working juke-joint blowout in the middle.

Helm's daughter Amy guested on the mic for a few numbers, but her blues mama routine didn't ring quite as true as Leary's boss man number. Her choice of material was also patently obvious, making it clear that the world doesn't need to hear Leiber and Stoller's ``Hound Dog'' and Willie Dixon's ``I Just Want To Make Love To You'' again.

Helm's Band-mate Garth Hudson also traveled up the Thruway for the gig, and as always he brought Planet Garth with him -- an eccentric bubble that follows him everywhere he goes, allowing few entrance and fewer understanding. Planet Garth, for further definition, is a place where Sun Ra and Brian Wilson make perfect sense, and often take tea together.

Hudson played his keyboards, indeed, but rarely in complete sync with the rest of the band. He spent the first few numbers fiddling with the controls of his electric setup, and then spent the rest of the night noodling into hyperspace -- once actually overshooting the end of a song so badly that he wound up playing all himself.

Still, when Hudson was kept low enough in the mix he added a sort of sonic underbrush to the steady groove of the band.

Drummers, of course, were in nirvana all night long. Helm is low on flash and high on style and his influential sound, attack and technique were evident from the first flam to the last paradiddle. One would have sorely missed his singing if it weren't for the fact that he looked like he was having so much fun just whomping away.

The young cats in the Barn Burners are lucky. They've managed, quite literally, to hitch their wagon to a star. Lucky for the rest of the world they were ready to make good on that opportunity.

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