Jon Carroll once wrote that Levon Helm
is the only drummer who can make you cry. Indeed, it's easy to forget how indispensable Helm's drumming was to the Band, how supple yet muscular his feel, how his touch always matched, enigma for enigma, the emotions of the other voices around him, the secrets those amazing songs keep revealing even after all this time. Helm doesn't just keep time or lay down a good groove; his beats tell their own stories. Listen to him pound away on the newly reissued live album Rock of Ages
. He sounds like no other drummer in American music: By pure instinct, he captures all the supple sway of great country shuffling, all the sweaty sex of R&B thumping, all the primal majesty of a chain gang cracking stone.That sound isn't the only reason to hear Helm's latest band, the Barn Burners, but it's reason enough. Helm, who recently beat throat cancer, no longer sings, and his group won't be doing any Band numbers. Expect instead a tenacious set of grimy, smoky blues -- Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Junior Parker, Koko Taylor -- played with the ferocity that, once upon a time, when rock & roll was being born, Levon and his Jungle Bush Beaters would unleash on the dives around his Marvel, Ark., home. With the exception of Helm, the Barn Burners are a bunch of young unknowns: singer/harp player Chris O'Leary, doghouse bassist Frankie Ingrao, guitarist Pat O'Shea and Levon's daughter, Amy Helm, on vocals and keyboards. All they're doing is playing the blues -- but when it's blues this fine, there's no reason to miss it.