Corrections or additions?
This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the September
12, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Blues at Great Adventure
Midway through a conversation with legendary drummer,
impresario, songwriter, singer and producer Levon Helm, he announces
that his three-year-old band, the Barnburners, "is just now
to get seasoned."
That’s a hell of statement, coming from Helm, who surely must be one
of the most seasoned musicians in all of rock, having played blues
and rock since the early 1950s, before he teamed up with Robbie
Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel to form The Band.
Helms laughs, and says, "This is so." Helm, who once had one
of the most angelic voices in all of rock, recently recovered from
a bout with throat cancer. His cancer, for all intents and purposes,
is cured, but laser treatments have left his voice rough-edged.
Levon Helm and the Barnburners will headline the fourth annual Great
Adventure Blues, Brews and BBQ Festival, and close out two days and
nights of music at the theme park. Helm will headline on Sunday,
16, and go on about 8:20 p.m. Other performers on Sunday include
California-based E.C. Scott, Chicago-based Carl Weathersby, and a
bevy of local acts, including Flamin’ Amy Coleman, the Fins, Ron
and the Hurricanes and the Rhett Tyler Band.
Performers on Saturday include headliners John Mooney and Bluesiana,
from Louisiana, Walter Trout and the Radicals, a blues rock group,
Philadelphia-based harmonica player Steve Guyger and NYC-based blues
violinist Heather Hardy and her band. Local acts appearing on a second
stage Saturday include the Roxy Perry Blues Band, Stringbean (Kenny
Sorensen) and the Stalkers, Billy Hector and his band, the Robert
Ross Band and the Scarlett Lee Moore Blues Band.
After acknowledging he is one of the most "seasoned" musicians
in all of rock, Helm adds, humbly, "Well, you know, your work
is never done. And I’ve never gotten it good enough so that I can
say, ‘Well, I’ve got this down now, I can retire.’ Every day, you’ve
got to start over. And the Barnburners are truly starting brand new
Having been through the mill in the record business as a founding
member of The Band, and before that working with rockabilly singer
Ronnie Hawkins for many years, Helm has now returned to his first
love, and what he knows best, blues music. The Barnburners were formed
in 1997 for a "Blues-Aid" show in Helena, Arkansas, where
the King Biscuit Blues Festival is held every fall, Helm explained.
The Barnburners includes Helm’s daughter, Amy, 29, on vocals, as well
as guitarist Pat O’ Shea, harp player and singer Chris O’ Leary and
bassist Frankie Ingrao. Helm is also excited to about the newest
of his group, who joins the band when his schedule permits,
Bobby Keys, whose resume includes tenures with the Rolling Stones
their world tours.
"It’s a wonderful thing for the Barnburners," Helm says,
he’s toured with the Rolling Stones, Bonnie and Delaney, and he
out way back when with Buddy Knox and the Rhythm Orchids. Through
no plan of our own, he’s just sort of joined up with us and it’s come
together nicely. With Bobby on saxophone, our seasoning should come
a little quicker."
Given Helm’s longtime passion for blues and early
music – he plays a variety of instruments, including guitar, mandolin
and harmonica, not just drums – and his talent as a songwriter,
and producer, the frantic touring schedule of Helm’s band can only
mean one thing: a broader audience for blues music. Helm’s passion
for blues has clearly rubbed off on his daughter, Amy, who belted
out classic blues fare from Willie Dixon, Junior Wells, Koko Taylor
and others, like a veteran, when the Barnburners performed at the
Stone Pony in Asbury Park in March.
"I guess Amy started out by osmosis," Helm explains,
always been around music, and you know, kids don’t care where you’re
going so long as they get to go with you. So I always took Amy to
the studio with me and took her to shows as much as possible. She
always enjoyed it and kind of had that calling for music."
Helm notes proudly that his daughter graduated from the University
of Wisconsin in Madison. (Helm dropped out of high school in his
Arkansas in the 1950s to play with Hawkins.) After spending a few
years as a teacher back at Helm’s home and recording studio near
New York, she’s now based in Manhattan.
"She taught school for a few years and she’s been playing and
writing her own music for the last three or four years," he says.
After a brief stint owning a club — in name only, called Levon
Helm’s American Cafe in New Orleans — Helm lost one of his best
friends, suddenly, in December 1999, when former Band bass player
Rick Danko died after suffering a heart attack in his sleep. Like
Helm, Danko was a musician and performer first and a person who made
records second. Helm, Danko and keyboardist Garth Hudson’s focus on
playing and rehearsing as much as humanly possible helped shape The
Band’s work ethic through the 1960s and ’70s. After years of touring,
The Band split up in 1976. Their farewell concert became one of the
great rock films of all time, Martin Scorcese’s "The Last
filmed at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. The filming process
— including a bit about trying to edit out Muddy Waters’ show
stopping performance at the concert — is chronicled in Helm’s
excellent autobiography, "This Wheel’s On Fire."
"We shared the same orientation," says Helm of the late Danko,
"we had that orientation towards playing and always wanting to
play. He was a true friend. I miss him every day, I swear I do."
— Richard J. Skelly
Route 537, off I-195, Jackson, 732-928-1821. Festival features John
Mooney and Bluesiana from Louisiana, with Walter Trout and the
Philadelphia harmonica player Steve Guyger, and blues violinist
Hardy and her band. Local acts appearing Saturday include the Roxy
Perry Blues Band, Stringbean (Kenny Sorensen) and the Stalkers,
Billy Hector Band, Robert Ross Band, and the Scarlett Lee Moore Blues
Band. $48 park admission.
about 8 p.m. Also California-based E.C. Scott, Chicago-based Carl
Weathersby, and local acts, including Flamin’ Amy Coleman, the Fins,
Ron Kraemer and the Hurricanes, and Rhett Tyler Band. $48.
September 16, 1 p.m.
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