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Levon Helm and the Barn Burners Ignite the Van Dyck

by Professor Robert Hislope

The concert review and interview below appeared in the Concordiensis, the student newspaper at Union College, Schenectady, New York, on May 3, 2001. Copyright © 2000, 2001 Concordiensis. Reprinted with permission from the author.

I saw Levon Helm and the Barn Burners Friday night at the Van Dyck. For those of you who don’t know him, he was the drummer and vocalist for The Band. The Band gained fame first as Bob Dylan’s first back-up band when he went electric the mid-1960’s.

They then struck out on their own, producing two absolute classics of rock-n-roll, Music from Big Pink (a collection of songs conceived in the basement of a big pink house in Saugerties, NY, in 1968), and The Band (1969), which contained the musical gems “The Night They Drove Ol’ Dixie Down,” “Up on Cripple Creek,” and “Rag Mama Rag.”

At a time when rock and roll was into psychedelia and rebellion, the Band turned to the roots of Americana, successfully synthesizing the blues, country, gospel, rock, and New Orleans funk. They called it quits in 1976 with the film and live album, The Last Waltz.

Now, Levon Helm is touring with a new band that focuses on the blues and includes his daughter Amy Helm as a lead vocalist. This was only the second time I’ve seen Levon. The other time was with a reconstituted version of The Band on the “High on the Hog” tour, Ames, Iowa in 1996.

Friday night the Van Dyck was packed, and Levon and his band mateskicked out some solid, tight blues. Levon is interesting to watch because he’s really studious behind the kit. He’s got this concentrated bearing and you can see that he’s totally into it.

The Barn Burners are excellent musicians. Chris O’Leary on harmonica and vocals really stands out. Frankie Ingrao on bass, like Levon, adopts a studied pose.

His big dog bass provides a sturdy foundation. Chris O’Leary offers efficient chops on the guitar. And Amy Helm is a wonderful vocalist.

So altogether, they churn out a great blues groove that kept all heads nodding and feet stomping. One tune they did from the Band repertoire was “Mystery Train.”

During the set, I introduced myself to Butch Dener, the road manager. What a wonderful guy he is. He pops up occasionally on The Band web site (

I’ve posted items on this web site in the past under the pseudonym “Danny Lopez” (which is a character in a Bob Dylan/Band song), and when I told him my moniker, he said “oh yeah, that’s a great song.” Well Butch eventually got me backstage and I met Levon and Amy.

At this point, Levon was in conversation with several fans, and he was talking with a woman who teaches musical theory in a local school. He said something to the effect that he studied this once but didn’t stick with it.

He was so engaging and pleasant and open. He takes an active interest in you and really listens — not something you expect from a star musician. He also told a story about this guy Hubert Sumlin, who played guitar for Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters. Levon said that although this guy has been to hell and back, he’s got the sweetest soul and temperament you can imagine.

To hear Levon enthusiastically tell this anecdote suggests a great admiration for Sumlin, a man who’s taken all the knocks from life and still came out smiling.

After the breakup of this discussion, I just sort of hung out backstage.

Eventually, I asked Butch if I could speak to Levon one more time before I go. He said sure, and he took me to the back room. “Got somebody that wants to talk to you again Boss,” Butch proclaimed.

I had thought the night before if there is anything I could ask Levon, it would be about the jazz influence on his drumming. If I’m not listening to The Band, Dylan, Tom Waits, John Hiatt, and like musicians, I’m listening to Jazz.

So I said to Levon, you’re drumming has often been compared to a jazz-style. Levon said “really?”, expressing some unawareness of that, or perhaps it was polite modesty.

At any rate, I said other than Cannonball Adderley, what jazz musicians have you listened to in the past. He mentioned Adderley’s drummer, Roy McCurdy, as an influence.

He also said Oscar Peterson was playing in Canada when The Band (then known as the Hawks) where doing the circuits there in their pre-Dylan days.

He mentioned Art Blakely, Jack De Johnette, and Elvin Jones as well. I said “Elvin Jones, you saw him with Coltrane?!?!” Levon couldn’t recall Coltrane as the front man, but said this was in ’59 or ’60 (which would have been the Coltrane period), and it was in New York at a jazz club. Elvin was phenomenal, according to Levon. I asked him if he met Charles Mingus.

Mingus’ bluesy, churchy, southern style has a certain affinity with the Band, in my opinion. He did meet Mingus, although this was at a time when Charles was older and very sick.

According to Levon, in his early days, when he was a young, aspiring musician, he used to hang around jazz clubs just so he could meet and shake hands with the drummers, and perhaps get noticed.

The discussion also veered into the blues, and Levon noted that his highest musical achievement was to play with Muddy Waters (I took this to mean the grammy winning album).

This was bigger than The Band or anything else he could accomplish. Playing the blues with Muddy was the real deal, it captured what music was all about.

He mentioned Hubert Sumlin again and pointed out this guy played for both Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy, “can you imagine that, the only groups you ever played in was with these two giants?!” (I paraphrase). He said the Band years were difficult and weren’t always fun.

I suggested that probably the early years were good, and he affirmed that, pointing to the first two albums as the best period. During this conversation, Butch came up and offered Levon and me a piece of gum (didn’t I say that he’s a sweet guy!?!).

Soon after this, Levon excused himself as he had to getready for the second set. “Time to go Boss,” Butch called out.

In sum, it was great thrill to meet Levon Helm. The Van Dyck is a perfect place to hear some musical icons in a casual and personal setting.

For those of you who like new groups like Dave Matthews and the Counting Crows, I recommend you check out the musical legacy of The Band, you won’t be disappointed. Oh, and check out Levon next time he’s around. Nothing makes you happier than the blues!

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