When the Helium Brothers first took the stage in the 70’s, they only went on because there were finally more people in the audience than there were in the band. A couple of tables were filled and the soon-to-be-fans had no idea what to expect. What they heard mystified them to some extent, because they had never heard anything else quite like it, and, for the same reason, it blew them away. Within months, Helium was packing one or the other of the two biggest clubs in town on a weekly basis. But why was that happening? Country music and bluegrass were certainly popular enough back then, especially some of the more eclectic versions, and especially on college campuses. But this wasn’t exactly that. It was somehow different. It was, the band knew, Helium.
There were some distinct constituents to Helium. There were sophisticated, imaginative, and inimitably arranged arranged three and four part vocal harmonies. You didn’t hear much of that in the clubs. Then there were drums. Drums, in what started out in the very early days as an acoustic act. The drums allowed amplification, and a rock solid beat, not to mention the beautiful singing voice of drummer Paul Fargeorge. This meant the band could share the Helium at larger clubs, and it also laid down a beat people could dance to. There was never a show without couples of all kinds dancing with all their hearts.
Another key ingredient in Helium music at the time was lead instrument virtuosity. Blazing leads were the rule, with Mike Platt expressing his genius on fiddle, and Oscar Hills busting his knuckles on banjo and guitar. The vocals and original material of the Helium Brothers were so good in and of themselves, though, that it was easy to forget how musically formidable the “lead team” really was, except perhaps in the middle of Jerry’s Breakdown or the Orange Blossom Special. The revived Helium Brothers of 2016 have not lost their energy and enthusiasm for intricate instrumental music, as they join forces to start gigging with greater frequency than the occasional reunion of the last couple of decades.
Everyone was saddened when our beloved Mike Platt, aka, Barney Pilgrim unexpectedly shuffled off this mortal coil a
few months ago. Platt loved preposterous pseudonyms, by the way, such as Martin Bridgepins, and later, Barney Pilgrim, to which he had legally changed his name. Those familiar with the old Irish folk song, The Blarney Pilgrim, will have had a glimpse of Platt’s unique sense of humor. Mike Platt had two idols in bluegrass fiddling. One was the redoubtable Kenny Baker, idolized by all sentient fiddle players. But the other was the great Kenny Kosek, internationally renowned for his musicality and fearless creativity. The Helium Brothers were able to convince Kenny to join the band this year, and to say he is the perfect man for the job only scratches the surface of Kenny’s abilities.
As for Oscar, he is still at it, and seems to have lost none of his dexterity, taste, and energy. If you don’t believe it, check out his take on Jerry Reed’s famous guitar tune, The Claw. Jerry introduced this tune on nylon string guitar and as the only instrumental on the record (vinyl), The Unbelievable Guitar and Voice of Jerry Reed in 1967. When Oscar heard this as a young teenager, he dropped everything else he was doing (probably not saying much) to figure out how Jerry played this thing, which Oscar describes as a Platonic Form of guitar pickin’. And figure it out he did.
He realized that Jerry was using his thumb and three fingers (unlike banjo playing with thumb and only two fingers) to accomplish this piece. The result was Jerry’s distinctive claw-like syncopated rhythm, with a funky bass line and horn section-like chords punctuating the chorus of the tune. If you close your eyes, it sounds like more than one person playing. And on the snappy little breaks, Jerry played a kind of chording which laid the foundation for what is now called Chicken Pickin’ in country music, and is played almost exclusively on the Telecaster. There, the player uses the thumb and two or three fingers (Brent Mason) or a flatpick and two or three fingers (Guthrie Trapp, Brad Paisley, Jon Jorgensen, Arlen Roth and others). But, the inception of this chording and it’s movements was in 1967, riiigtchere with The Claw. Oscar plays it with yet some of his own sensibility as well, which he describes as “wandering through the Dmaj-11 space,” whatever that means. Check it out though – Oscar just crushing Jerry Reed’s seminal composition, The Claw …