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It's the music that brings the Stone Mountain Live! band back for more

One killa house band

Duke Levine plays lead guitar and mandolin in the Stone Mountain LIVE! Band Photo Courtesy of SMAC. (click for larger version)
August 04, 2009
enough time for music fans to have heard about the Stone Mountain LIVE! shows where Carol and her house band, the Stone Mountain Boys, perform with special guests including Lucy Kaplansky, Cheryl Wheeler, Kenny White and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

The Stone Mountain Boys — they regularly bring down the house, show after show, but who ARE those guys? Carol's called them "one killa house band," but we wanted to know more about the six core players — Duke Levine, Kevin Barry, Sonny Barbato, Richard Gates, Chris Cote and Billy MacGillivray, who are some of the best freelance and sessions musicians in the business. Their lives have been intertwined over the years through bands, recording sessions and gigs, but it's the music and the friendships that keep them coming back to Stone Mountain.

Duke Levine: lead guitar, mandolin

"Duke is the reason the band is together," Carol explains. "After [my former band] Knots & Crosses, everybody I've played with came through Duke. I really only play with people he and Kevin [Barry] like. Duke is so well known and respected. Having him as music director for the shows gives us credibility."

Reviewers praise his fluid skills, "fleet-fingered country picking," and "his impeccable taste in material," calling his playing, "perfection personified." In addition to recording and touring with Mary Chapin Carpenter, Peter Wolf, Aimee Mann and others, Levine has appeared on the Grammy Awards and the Super Bowl pregame show, and has backed Bono and Yo-Yo Ma at the Boston Pops. He's performed on The Tonight Show, The Late Show with David Letterman, Late Night with Conan O'Brian, Austin City Limits, Soundstage and The Today Show; and he's played on dozens of television and film scores, including most of John Sayles' movies. An in-demand sessions player, he's recorded with Kathy Mattea, Patty Larkin, Cheryl Wheeler, Otis Rush, Graham Parker and Jonatha Brooke; and he's produced four solo albums including his latest, "Beneath the Blue," his first release in 10 years.

Kevin Barry, guitar and lap steel

"Kevin and I did a duo gig when Duke was on the road," explains Carol. "We're like brother and sister. He's a very natural player. What's so great is the generosity between Duke and Kevin — they're best friends and they're always pushing the other to do the solos, and together they're an amazing force."

Kevin got his first guitar at age 12 and a year later his parents were chauffeuring their prodigy to gigs at local bars and clubs near his hometown of Olean, New York. While Duke is a New England Conservatory grad, Kevin went to Berklee, where he became one of the school's top guitarists (and, appropriately, where he's now part of the Ensembles Department).

After college he teamed up with fellow Berklee student, Paula Cole. He's also toured with Johnatha Brooke and Mary Chapin Carpenter, and performed with Shawn Colvin and Emmylou Harris. His lengthy list of recording credits include work with Vance Gilbert, Catie Curtis, Kate Taylor, Susan Tedeschi, Lori McKenna and Mighty Sam McClain.

One of the industry's premier lap steel guitar players, he also plays acoustic, electric, 12-string, bass and slide guitars, dobro, piano, mandola and mandolin — and everything from rock and folk to jazz and country.

"In ensemble playing, you need to be generous musically," he says. "You need to listen to the other people. You have to play like a team. If you're not playing as much for the other people in the group as for yourself, that's a problem. You have to have musical humility, to think about the song first. The song is the focus, not the guitar solo."

Richard Gates, bass

You might be tempted to overlook Richard Gates. His face hidden by the brim of his hat, he stands quietly, laying down a rich, tasteful bass.

Richard grew up in Ohio, where his first guitar instructors were young women who played electric guitar, which was fairly unusual at the time. There he says he met "an interesting diversity of people. It wasn't a man's world. It gave me a broader spectrum of experience."

He went on to back many well-known women singer/songwriters including Patty Larkin, Suzanne Vega, Paula Cole, Jonatha Brooke and Dar Williams. In 2001, when Richard was faced with a life-threatening heart condition, many of the recording stars he'd played with, along with sound crews, radio stations, and other musicians, backed him by coming together for four nights for "Cause Duct Tape Won't Do: a Benefit Series for Richard Gates."

Four years after receiving a heart transplant in 2004, Gates, a former runner who had completed 12 marathons, undertook the "Tour de Second Chance," an 800-mile bicycle ride from his home state of Ohio to Boston. The goal: to raise awareness about the importance of organ donation. Along his route, he visited those on transplant waiting lists, just as he had been visited by two women who'd had heart transplants when he was awaiting his own.

But it's music, he says, that is "the beacon that has helped me keep my focus, especially when I was sick. It helped maintain the thread, keep things alive, afloat and going in the right direction."

Sonny Barbato, accordion, piano, organ

"Sonny is a rare musician," explains Carol. "He is a combination of a beautiful pianist, hip accordion player and someone who could have played in Lawrence Welk's band...which actually kinda sums us up, too! I love Sonny; he's someone you just want to take care of. He's also addicted to the Red Sox, and often I have to pull him off the couch in the dressing room to do the show if the Sox are on!"

The youngest of 11 children in a musical family, Barbato is credited with being one of Boston's finest musicians and a pioneering voice in jazz accordion. A much-in-demand freelance musician, he's known for backing some of the best singer-songwriters around.

He studied piano at both Berklee and the New England Conservatory, then went back to his first love, accordion, playing pop, rock, country and jazz. Soon he found his own unique sound.

Sonny has toured extensively in the U.S. and Europe, performing at festivals and concerts; and he's recorded with Lori McKenna, Kenny Barron, Duke Levine, Luciana Souza, George Schuller, David Budway and many others.

Chris Cote, vocals

Carol says of Chris Cote, "He's the vocal version of all the other Stone Mountain Boys; he adds a special spice to the mix."

Also a bassist and guitarist, he's the only one in the band who regularly plays, as he puts it, "ear-bleeding hard rock." He's famous (or is it infamous?) as Count Bassie in The Upper Crust, a band he describes as "AD/DC wearing 18th century nobleman's outfits, with all the lyrics and songs done from that standpoint," Rolling Stone said of the band. "Dismiss Boston's Upper Crust as a joke rock band if you must, but give them this much: They're actually funny, and there's as much rock as mock to their singular brand of 'roque' and there's plenty of worthy riffs and double-entendre wit to go around." As Chris says, "It couldn't be more different from the Stone Mountain Boys."

Billy MacGillivray, drums

Billy and Duke go back a long way. Duke explains: "Billy and I grew up in the same hometown [Worcester] and we played together for 10 years. We've always had a strong connection."

Billy has been called "the ultimate drummer." He's been credited for "finding the pocket" and having "a snare hit to die for" that, according to one former bandmate, is "like butter." Billy, who teaches percussion and drums at a number of Worcester schools, has played everything from classical to rock, blues and country.

Carol sees Billy as "A steady Eddie...which is just what you want in a drummer. Duke and he have some unique plugged-in communication going on. I would say drummers are as a rule a bit kooky, but Billy is about one of the most laid-back players I know...just another nice guy in a band full of wicked nice guys."

Putting it all together

Putting on an all-new show with special guests and limited rehearsal time calls on all the talents of the band. Once the guest artists have been chosen, Duke finds the music, choosing more than he anticipates will be needed.

"Choosing the music has become a big deal, trying to pick what's right. We don't know what will work until we rehearse." He talks to the artists about what they'd like, then writes out charts and sends music for the band to listen to. The day before the show the band rehearses and runs a sound check, then runs through again the day of the show, this time with the guests.

Carol explains, "The show is a collaboration; it's built around playing with us. It's a process that you don't normally see on stage. There's no shtick. Everybody wants to play with people they're comfortable with. It's a big leap of faith for these guest artists when they come." She also admits, "It's a grueling two days of rehearsal, so people have to get along. It's like a big family, a reunion each time."

Billy MacGillivray adds, "I don't know if I have the words to say how much I look forward to playing, every time I get the call. The music is of the highest quality, and so are the musicians, professionally and personally. We're all good friends. We laugh, we work together. For me, it's very special."

It's very special for audiences, too. If you haven't seen it, go. Have dinner beforehand, then settle in for an incredible show with Carol, "one killa house band," and their very special guests. s


See Stone Mountain Live!

Upcoming Stone Mountain Live! Shows include:

• August 1: The Anniversary Show with special guest, Mary Chapin Carpenter.

• September 5: With songwriter Ruthie Foster.

• October 31: Featuring guest country star Kathy Mattea, and other guests including guitarist Bill Cooley.

• December 11 and 12: The Christmas Show with special guests bluegrass greats, the Gibson Brothers.

• December 18, 19 and 20: The Christmas Show with special guests TBA.

• February 14: Valentine's Day Show with guests Susan Werner and Harry Manx.

To hear the Stone Mountain Boys, check out the DVD, Carol Noonan "LIVE" at the Stone Mountain Arts Center, available at the venue or on the website, www.StoneMountainArtsCenter. com. Tickets for the show are also available on the site or by calling the box office Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. at 1-866-227-6523.

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