Mavis Staples and Levon Helm — “Carry Me Home” — Anti Records
Every once in a while, an album comes along so filled with such wonderful music-making that it’s difficult finding the words to do it justice.
“Carry Me Home” by Levon Helm and Mavis Staples is one of those albums.
It’s a joyously live album, released on May 20, and recorded in the summer of 2011 at one of Helm’s live shows dubbed the Midnight Rambles, held at his home in Woodstock, N.Y. Sadly, less than a year later, in April 2012, Helm succumbed to the throat cancer he had battled since 1998.
Staples is the sole survivor of the Staples Singers; drummer/vocalist Helm was a staple in creating the timeless music of The Band. They became friends during the production of “The Last Waltz,” The Band’s glorious farewell concert in 1976 (still one of the best music concert films, ever, by the way).
Both represent heartfelt musical excellence in their not-so-disparate styles — Helm brought a driving sense of rootsy Americana tinged with Southern soul; Staples lifted gospel music beyond its sanctified limits into soulful secular territory. Both infuse their music with a sense of contagious joy that lifts every song beyond the ordinary. With band members from both camps, including a well-polished horn section, plus backup singers whose voices seem to pull everything together.
From the opening of the first track, Curtis Mayfield’s classic anthem, “This Is My Country,” the music feels loose and easy, even with the most serious of subjects, and you get the immediate sense of great music being committed. They update this 1968 musical statement with some 2011 political sentiments.
“Trouble In My Mind” follows, a 1924 standard that dates to the origins of recorded blues, a song that despite its title, promises hope and optimism: “Trouble in mind, I’m blue; But I won’t be blue always; ‘Cause I know the sun’s gonna shine in my back door someday.” This celebratory arrangement has Helm loping along on drums, pushing horns, guitar and keys that feel almost Dixieland, while Staples rides its crest with a tough vocal turn.
“Farther Along” is an a cappella version of an old gospel sung, beautifully done with backup harmonies from backup singers that include Amy Helm, Levon’s daughter.
Joyous music resumes with “Hand Writing On The Wall” and continues throughout, and that uplifting tone keeps the faith with the spirit of this music.
Each bluesy, gospel, soulful song that follows is a gem: A strong version of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free;” the traditional gospel of “This May Be The Last Time;” two Helm favorites, “When I Go Away” and “Wide River To Cross,” and the soulful gospel of “You Got To Move.”
The final two songs are worth special mention. Staples adds her own take to Bob Dylan’s “You Got To Serve Somebody,” giving it perhaps the majestic vocals it needs to interpret Dylan’s vibrant lyricism.
The closer is fittingly Helm’s only real vocal turn, The Band’s evergreen “The Weight,” joining Staples as they did in “The Last Waltz, except here, Staples yields the main vocals to Helm. His world-weary voice, scarred by his battles with throat cancer, sounds entirely appropriate. It’s such a bittersweet conclusion when you realize that Levon was less than a year away from his own final curtain.
I realize that I may be overusing a few words here, such as joyful, glorious, celebratory — but the sheer exuberance of this powerful music and the people making it, is hard to overstate. “Carry Me Home” is a profoundly gorgeous work of musical art.
I found two videos made from this concert and both are below to help give you a better feeling for the vibrancy of the music and musicians in these sessions.
Here’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free”
Here’s “You Got to Move”
- This Is My Country
- Trouble In My Mind
- Farther Along
- Hand Writing On The Wall
- I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free
- Move Along Train
- This May Be The Last Time
- When I Go Away
- Wide River To Cross
- You Got To Move
- You Got To Serve Somebody
- The Weight