meIn the early twentieth century, Levon Helm began hosting live performances he invited by Midnight Rambles in the studio of his home in Woodstock, New York. It was a rare shining moment in the story of what happened to the band members who weren’t Robbie Robertson in the years after the quintet split, a grim tale involving bitter animosity, addiction, suicide, bankruptcy and imprisonment. The Midnight Rambles revitalized the drummer and singer’s career, led to two Grammy Award-winning solo albums and attracted a large group of guests: Dr. John, Drive-By Truckers, Elvis Costello, Donald Fagen, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, and Kris Kristofferson.
But perhaps no performer was quite as fit for the action as Mavis Staples, who played Midnight Rumble with Helm and his band in 2011. Helm had odd reasons to start shows—after developing throat cancer that left him unable to sing for five years, he had bills medical to pay her — but his stated goal was to recreate the atmosphere of a travel tent that shows he saw him as a kid in Arkansas. He explained that “Midnight’s Outing” was a second adult-only show, “where the songs become more catchy, the jokes become more hilarious and the prettiest dancer comes down and rocks it.”
It is no exaggeration to imagine the songs that form the backbone of the live group Staples and Helm as part of the repertoire of a traveling show in the 1940s – albeit in the less serious part of the evening – sung by someone who sounded no different than Mavis Staples: a large, striking voice To behold, he was raised in the church with courageous strength. Sure, blue Bible standards handwriting on the wall, it should move and this might be the last time (later secular, the last two found their way into the Rolling Stones’) and a capella hymn away are all old enough to be special. Two songs from Helm’s solo single, When I Go Away and Wide River to Cross, feel so rooted in pre-rock ‘n’ roll traditions that they may be decades older. Powered by a horn section, Helm and Staples’ band chefs sound an order: the feeling that everyone on stage is spending too long seeps through the speakers.
In fact, Staples was enough to turn Bob Dylan Gotta Serve Somebody (“It May Be The Devil Or It May Be The Lord”), a song that so enraged John Lennon that he recorded a horrid response and tone: “You must serve yourself/That’s right, no, get on it right in the dreaded “head”. Lennon apparently thought the song was didactic and pious, but he might have changed his tune if he heard Staples sing it. It replaces Dylan’s nasal tone with a voice that slowly builds up from understatement and error, to a series of episode crises cathartic
It also transformed This Is My Country, one of Curtis Mayfield’s most interesting protest songs. The original film turns from outrage in its depiction of slavery and lives lost in the struggle for civil rights, to addressing white listeners a friendly plea to reason, in contrast to the military mood of 1968: “I know you’ll pay attention/Do we perish unfairly or live together as a nation?” The second of Obama’s presidency, with already ominous storm clouds gathering to the right, Helm and Staples adjusted the mood of the song accordingly. Helm’s playing emphasizes drum rolls, giving the percussion a more military feel than the soothing origin of the impressions. Staples wears on the lyrics, so the end of the song indicates that someone’s patience is finally starting: “I’ve got some folks throwing a party but no one calls me / They mix up Kool-Aid and pass it on as tea / I hear a lot of people say they want their country back / It doesn’t seem to me to be progressing.”
The album ends with The Weight, a song covered by Staple Singers in 1968 and performed with the band in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz. There is a compelling argument that this is the highlight of the film, though faithful to the unusual moment in which Van Morrison, dressed in a sequin-embellished costume, begins kicking high his way across the stage — it seems, as one critic incisively put it. Forget, like a “murder elf” – you’d beg to differ.
In this version, Helm sings the first stanza of the song, before Staples takes over. Here, the roles are reversed, so Staples’ bold voice serves as an introduction to Helm’s look. Due to illness, his voice was hoarse and battered, but quite harmonious – of a worn but not good quality. He changes the personal pronouns in one line, so it seems to indicate what he’s experiencing — “I’ll do myself a favor, stay here” — and at the end of the song, he lets out a crackling united growl. Having Helm less than a year to live obviously makes for an impressive performance, but as the epitaphs go, Carry Me Home isn’t really full of what would have been melancholy: he’s too prolific and too lively for that. It’s like a man out in the flames of glory.
What Alexis listened to this week
Jasdeep Singh Dejon – Saganava
From his latest album Anomaly, maestro and composer Dijon shows an astonishing path somewhere between cinematic poem and North Indian classical music.