Eclectic, poignant and unbelievably exciting – Mavis Staples gives it everything at Levon’s Last Waltz
Release Date: 20th May 2022
Formats: CD / 2LP vinyl / Download
At The Barrier’s running theme for 2022 is classic live albums and regular visitors may recall that, back in February, several of our writers each spilled the beans on their favourite Live albums of all time. And, this afternoon, I heard what will, without doubt, be a new addition to that list; Carry Me Home, the live album from Mavis Staples and Levon Helm, recorded at one of Levon’s last Midnight Rambles at his home/studio in Woodstock, NY in summer 2011, is, quite simply, stunning.
Carry Me Home is a live album that has just about everything – new interpretations of familiar songs, an eclectic setlist, overwhelming passion and, to cap it all, the heartbreaking poignancy of a final performance from two long-term friends. If you’ve ever wished you could have attended one of the legendary Midnight Ramble sessions, the Carry Me Home will give you the sweetest possible taste of the experience – without having to jump on a transatlantic flight.
Levon Helm’s Midnight Rambles were, indeed, the stuff of legend. It all started back in 1991 when, tragically, Levon’s home in Woodstock was destroyed in an electrical fire. Worse still, in 1998, he was diagnosed with throat cancer; the illness nearly killed him and the associated treatment all but wrecked that unique singing voice that made many of The Band’s songs so special. Financial difficulties inevitably followed and, in 2003, Levon was threatened with foreclosure on his rebuilt home. To generate some much-needed revenue, Levon, with help from his manager, Barbara O’Brien, hit upon the idea of holding a series of rent parties at his home; the parties were so popular that they soon became a regular event, and the Midnight Ramble was born. To play at the parties, Levon put a band together with fiddler/guitarist/mandolinist Larry Campbell, guitarist Jimmy Vivino and, later, his daughter Amy Helm and Campbell’s wife Teresa Williams. Word spread and the Midnight Rambles attracted many of Levon’s stellar friends – Rambles over the years featured performances from Emmylou Harris, David Crosby, Jackson Brown, Elvis Costello, Norah Jones, Phil Lesh, Graham Nash and many, many more.
The performance by Mavis Staples, captured for posterity on Carry Me Home, was one of the last Midnight Rambles. As I’ve already mentioned, Mavis and Levon had been great friends since they first met at The Band’s farewell show, The Last Waltz, in San Francisco in November 1976, when Mavis, along with her sisters Yvonne and Cleotha joined The Band onstage to deliver a soul-baring version of The Weight. Although neither Mavis nor Levon had any inkling at the time, the Carry Me Home session was the last time that the two friends would perform together, and, tragically, within one year of the recording, Levon would succumb to cancer that just a few years earlier, he thought he’d beaten. Carry Me Home is, indeed, “…a time capsule and a memorial, a blissful homecoming and a fond farewell, a once-in-a-lifetime concert – and friendship – preserved for the ages.”
The selection of material for the set on that summer’s evening was, in hindsight, particularly poignant. Although neither of the principal performers realized that they were saying goodbye, the inclusion of songs like the hymn, Farther Along, and The Staples Singers’ This May Be The Last Time have turned the album into an unintentional requiem and the choice of The Weight as the evening’s set-closer adds a bittersweet synchronicity to the story of the Staples/Helm partnership.
But, as always, it’s the music that really counts and, on that score, Carry Me Home is a delight, from start to finish – from the brash, jazzy opening chords of set opener This is My Country to the closing vocal flourishes of The Weight. The band is in top form as, variously, guitar, horns, organ, bar-room piano and brass all take their turns in the spotlight. The backing vocals are delicious, Levon’s drums are tight and driving and, best of all, Mavis sings with power, passion and authority throughout the show. You can almost see the performers’ enjoyment.
The choice of material is faultless and the arrangements and delivery are spot-on. Mavis delivers a strident vocal on opening track This Is My Country as Levon brings up the rear with a quasi-military drum rhythm; Nina Simone’s Trouble in My Mind is given a marvelous country blues treatment, laced with tinkly piano, bluesy violin and blousy brass, the a-Capella Farther Along is delivered as a breathtaking gospel song with wonderful vocal harmonies, and Hand Writing on the Wall mixes country with gospel to create a sweaty foot-tapper.
Carry Me Home is packed with highlights but, if pushed, I would perhaps choose the version of Nina Simone’s I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to be Free as a particular favourite. Laden with soulful brass and some excellent guitar it is, nevertheless, Mavis’s vocal delivery that steals the show and the backing harmonies are, once again, divine.
The respective houses of Staples and Helm come together for Move Along Train, a Staples Singers song that Levon covered on his 2009 album Electric Dirt. This time, Mavis assumes the role of a blues shouter as the band play a heavy blues backing that is lightened by some lovely touches of organ and guitar. Larry Campbell’s When I Go Away, another track that Levon covered on Electric Dirt is packaged as a hybrid big band jazz-cum-gospel number, with a couple of wonderful passages in which Mavis sings to a pared-back accompaniment of Levon’s shuffling drum rhythm. Levon’s 2007 Dirt Farmer album is given an airing with the powerful Wide River to Cross, in which Mavis adds a real soulful edge to a gritty country ballad. The sax/organ solo is wonderful and the song deservedly earns a rapturous audience reception.
Most At The Barrier readers will be familiar with the Mississippi Fred McDowell song, You Got To Move – if only because it was covered by The Stones on their Sticky Fingers album. On Carry Me Home, Mavis, Levon and the band give the song a shot in the arm so that, instead of a dour blues, the song is elevated – with the help of some spiky guitar, honky-tonk piano and more of those heavenly backing vocals – into the liveliest gospel number that you’ll hear this side of James Brown’s sermon in The Blues Brothers.
And, just when you start to think that things can’t get any better, they do. The version of You Gotta Serve Somebody is, just possibly, THE definitive version of this Dylan classic. The band is tight and funky, the backing vocals are right on the nail and Mavis is at her very best – full of power and oozing authority. In this mood, when she sings “You’ve got to serve somebody,” you don’t argue.
A great Levon drum break leads into the set’s inevitable closing number – The Weight. In an upbeat version, Levon contributes his only vocal on the album. He’s husky and forced, but it’s spine-tingling just to hear a hint of that once-great voice, and Mavis adds a touch of sweetness as she skips around him with some wonderful light harmonies. The vocal harmonies on the “Catch a cannonball” verse are particularly angelic, and there’s even a trombone solo.
Reluctantly, Mavis had to leave Woodstock to get back on the road. Before she left, she and Levon indulged in a long embrace: “We hugged and hugged and hugged,” she recalls, “I just held onto him. I didn’t know it’d be the last time, but in my heart and in my mind, Levon will always be with me because I take him everywhere I go. Yes indeed. I can see him right now. And, some sweet day, we’ll be together again.”
I’ll say it again: Carry Me Home is simply stunning. Eclectic, poignant and unbelievably exciting – it’s album that you can’t afford to miss.
Mavis Staples kicks off a European Tour in June 2022. In addition to dates in Barcelona, Brussels, Paris and Hilvarenbeek, she’ll be playing at The Kite Festival in Kidlington, Oxfordshire on 11th June, The Subscription Rooms in Stroud on the 13th, Usher Hall, Edinburgh on the 14th and Islington’s Union Chapel on the 16th and 17th, before ending her tour at The Isle of Wight Festival on the 19th. She’ll be joined bu Levon’s daughter Amy on the Stroud, Edinburgh and Islington dates.
Watch the Official video to I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free – a favourite track from the album – here: