After learning earlier on Tuesday that Levon Helm is “in the final stages of his battle with cancer,” I was so saddened that I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to go out to the show. After some consideration, I thought some good music and the company of some good friends might be just the thing to deal with these blues and besides, Levon never seemed to be much for that mopey crap anyway. So with my heavy heart I made my way on down to Juanita’s.
Tony Furtado opened up the first set with the traditional song “False Hearted Lovers Blues.” I don’t know if it was by design or by providence, but this was also the opening song on Levon’s Grammy-winning 2007 album “Dirt Farmer.” This was just the reassurance that I needed to know that I was indeed in the right place doing the right thing. Furtado played a couple more songs solo, impressing the crowd with his bottleneck slide work. He was then joined by Danny Barnes, along with his trusty Bishline Banjo, an orange Mac laptop and a myriad of effects and looping pedals. They launched into the folk/blues standard "Stagger Lee."
Furtado did acknowledge some of the greats that had recorded the song including Taj Mahal and Mississippi John Hurt. I have those records and I don’t recall them using looping or effects but Furtado and Barnes made it sound so good. Think of a couple of hot shot chefs taking a classic Southern dish like chicken fried steak, making it with Kobe beef and drizzling it with truffle oil. Barnes then played a few songs on his own, sticking mainly to his previous two albums “Rocket” and “Pizza Box.” These included “Caveman,” “Pizza Box” and “Wine.” Furtado returned to the stage and talked about his first trip to Little Rock several years ago, crediting a lady named Peggy Adams. He cited her as an inspiration for his next song “Angels We Know.” Judging from the crowd response, many of Peggy’s friends were in attendance.
The first set finished up with both musicians on stage playing “Crow Black Chicken,” another traditional folk tune, and Woody Guthrie’s “I Ain’t got no Home.” “Crow Black Chicken” is as close as Barnes would get to pulling out songs from his past with The Bad Livers. That song appeared on the 1992 record “Delusions of Banjer.”
Though far from packed, there was a good-sized crowd for a Tuesday night at Juanita’s. There was even one young fella that danced his ass off the entire time. Admirably, he was not the least bit bashful about being alone on the dance floor. For the most part the crowd was a little long in the tooth and did thin out considerably between sets. The night owls and die-hards did stick around for a great second set. Barnes started off the set with “TSA” which tells the story (with tongue squarely in cheek) of falling in love with a TSA agent at our own Little Rock Airport.
Later, Furtado returned and did a small grouping of his songs including “13 Below,” a goose-bump raising telling of the modern-day Sago mine tragedy. Barnes then played the tile track from his most recent effort, “Rocket.” The show closed with the pair granting a request from the floor for the song “Funtime,” a song Barnes wrote. It seems to be a modern take on a murder ballad, told from the likely insane murder’s perspective. After fessing up that that they had not played the song together before, the two huddled up briefly then delivered an amazing rendition complete with blistering slide work from Furtado.
I had a chance to talk with Danny Barnes briefly before the show. Danny has a big beautiful and busy brain and seems to want to utilize as much of it as he can. It shows in the layering and complexity of his music but it shows in other areas too. He is a pilot, a fly-fisherman, a trap shooter, a unicyclist and a voracious reader. In the short time we spoke he quoted Tolstoy, Rimbaud, and Bukowski. While most of that was over the head of this simple Arkie farm boy, what he did say that I think I understand is: “I take the idea of playing music literally. I want it to be play. I want it to be fun.” Barnes and Furtado did indeed seem to have fun, as did the Tuesday night crowd.