World's greatest drummer in a bar band
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., December 22, 2002) – Anyone who unknowingly wandered into Club Helsinki on Saturday night could have been forgiven for not thinking twice about the band on stage or the music it played.

Not that it wasn’t terrific – the Barn Burners were an incredibly tight, explosive quartet playing a variety of blues and blues-based music. Lead singer Chris O’Leary had the growling pipes and muscular harmonica of Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, and guitarist Pat O’Shea was a versatile axeman on both rhythm and lead. Playing an acoustic standup bass, Michael “Mudcat” Ward showed that you don’t need electricity to keep an electrifying beat. Guest guitarist Pete Kanaras, a member of the Nighthawks who sat in with the band for much of the night, added texture and commentary to the group’s minimalist arrangements.

And then there was the drummer. It’s possible if you didn’t know who it was that you might have overlooked the fact that he just happened to be one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll drummers of all time. If you were paying attention, you might have recognized some of his signature vocabulary as well as the unusual power with which he wielded his sticks. But aside from his distinctive playing, which hasn’t lost a beat in spite of aging and a tough battle with cancer, Levon Helm did nothing to draw attention to himself as anything other than the drummer in a relatively anonymous blues band.

But what playing it was. Helm had a way of playing hard but not loud, driving the band with his relaxed yet forceful time-keeping. His playing is always deceptively simple, and what he leaves out – the spaces between the notes – is as important as what he plays. He made extensive use of his signature riff -- playing a steady beat and then rolling it over at the end of the bar at the chord change – and it occasionally gave the music a hint of the flavor of his funky work with The Band.

The closest the show came to The Band’s repertoire was a version of the rockabilly classic “Mystery Train,” which The Band used to play, but otherwise the Barn Burners steered clear of anything associated with the group that made Helm famous in rock ‘n’ roll circles. Helm stuck exclusively to the drums, his singing voice having been silenced by 28 radiation treatments for throat cancer. Hearing him only play drums, and playing on this well-worn repertoire of blues by the likes of Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson, was in a manner a blessing, as it encouraged close listening to Helm’s eloquent drumming to the exclusion of all the other elements that vied for a listener’s attention when The Band played its glorious, stately rock ‘n’ roll.

The show was an old-fashioned blues party. The audience respectfully listened through the first set, but for most of the second set a crowd of dancers occupied the area in front of the stage, egged on by songs like “I’m Ready” and “Shake That Boogie.”

Seeing Helm in this venue and format gave pause for reflection. On the one hand, the audience was blessed to be able to hear him perform in this friendly, intimate, accessible club in Great Barrington’s thriving downtown, truly the envy of many throughout the land. On the other hand, there was the stark reality of what America does to its heroes. A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Helm used to hold forth in arenas and on festival stages in front of many thousands at a time. Now he is virtually a forgotten man. There is a certain pathos in that the former drummer of the world’s greatest rock band has become the world’s greatest drummer in a bar band.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on December 24, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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