Levon Helm & The Barn Burners – Cat’s Cradle (Carrboro, NC)
When Levon Helm was diagnosed with cancer and subsequently had his singing voice burned out by radiation treatments, most people would have expected him to hang it up and call it a day. Instead, Helm — best-known for his role in The Band, but also with several solo albums to his credit — kept his music alive and assembled the Barn Burners.
Both the audience and the stage sported a mix of young and old on this night. Helm and band were augmented by North Carolina’s own Bob Margolin on guitar and veteran saxophonist and Rolling Stones confederate Bobby Keys. Frontman Chris O’Leary took control of the audience, silencing them with blasts from his harp as he embarked on a train ride through the blues while Helm and bassist Frank Ingrao rolled and rode the beat.
Despite the apparent youth of the Barn Burners, various renditions of blues classics such as “I Wants To Be Loved”, “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Hootchie Cootchie Man” did not sound out of place alongside the band’s own material. While Margolin laid everybody out with some piercing work in a blues jam, Barn Burners guitarist Pat O’Shea left the audience begging for more with his solo on “Grease Monkey Mama”, a track off Levon & the Barn Burners’ forthcoming CD.
The sheer joy the players radiated during their two sets was undeniable. The band’s obvious dedication to preserving a style of music the mainstream writes off as hackneyed and cliched made this show come off like an old-time blues revue. Helm drummed with the same subtle power he used when he was at the peak of his popularity, giving all performers notice that it’s the music and not the status that’s important.
Perhaps the highlight of the show was Levon’s daughter, Amy Helm. Unobtrusive in the background, playing keyboards as her father looked over in pride, wailing the blues and putting lead singer O’Leary in his place, she served notice as a new, strong female blues talent. On “Hound Dog”, she sounded like the voice of experience as her father and the Barn Burners played the sound of the past and the future.