In the early noughties, Levon Helm began hosting live shows he called Midnight Rambles in a studio at his home in Woodstock, NY. It was a rare bright moment in the story of what happened to the members of the Band who weren’t Robbie Robertson in the years following the quintet’s split, a grim saga involving bitter enmity, addiction, suicide, bankruptcy and jail. The Midnight Rambles shows reinvigorated the drummer and vocalist’s career, led to two Grammy-winning solo albums and attracted a vast array of guests: Dr John, Drive-By Truckers, Elvis Costello, Donald Fagen, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson.
But perhaps no performer was quite as appropriate to the event as Mavis Staples, who played a Midnight Ramble with Helm and his band in 2011. Helm had prosaic reasons for starting the shows – after suffering with throat cancer which left him unable to sing for five years, he had medical bills to pay – but his stated aim was to recreate the atmosphere of the travelling tent shows he’d seen as a child in Arkansas. The “midnight ramble”, he explained, was a second, adults-only performance, “where the songs would get a little bit juicier, the jokes would get funnier and the prettiest dancer would really get down and shake it”.
It isn’t a stretch to imagine the songs that form the backbone of Staples and Helm’s live set as part of a travelling show’s 1940s repertoire – albeit in the less risque part of the evening – sung by someone who sounded not unlike Mavis Staples: a big, arresting, church-reared voice with a gritty undertow. Certainly, the bluesy gospel standards Hand Writing on the Wall, You Got to Move and This May Be the Last Time (subsequently secularised, the latter two found their way into the Rolling Stones’ ouevre) and the a cappella hymn Farther Along are all old enough to have featured. Two songs from Helm’s solo canon, When I Go Away and Wide River to Cross, feel so rooted in pre-rock’n’roll traditions that they could be decades older than they are. Augmented with a horn section, Helm’s band cooks and Staples sounds commanding: the sense that everyone on stage is having a high old time seeps through the speakers.
Indeed, Staples is commanding enough to transform Bob Dylan’s Gotta Serve Somebody (“It may be the devil or it may be the lord”), a song that so incensed John Lennon he recorded a scabrous, scouse-accented response: “Yer gotta serve yerself / That’s right, la, get that straight in yer fuckin’ ’ead”. Lennon evidently thought the song was didactic and pious, but he might have changed his tune if he’d heard Staples sing it. She supplants Dylan’s nasal sneer with a vocal that slowly builds from understated and foreboding, to a series of cathartic, guttural snarls.
Also transformed is This Is My Country, one of Curtis Mayfield’s most intriguing protest songs. The original flips from fury in its depictions of slavery and lives lost in the civil rights struggle, to addressing white listeners with a cordial plea for reason, at odds with 1968’s militant mood: “I know you will give consideration / Shall we perish unjust or live together as a nation?” In the second year of the Obama presidency, with ominous storm clouds already gathering on the right, Helm and Staples adjust the song’s mood accordingly. Helm’s playing emphasises drum rolls, lending the rhythm a more militaristic feel than the Impressions’ laid-back original. Staples extemporises on the lyrics, so the end of the song suggests someone’s patience finally snapping: “You got some folk throwing a party but nobody invited me / They’re mixing up the Kool-Aid and passing it off as tea / I hear a lot of people saying they want to take their country back / Don’t sound like progress to me.”
The album ends with The Weight, a song the Staple Singers covered in 1968 and performed with the Band in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz. There’s a compelling argument that it’s the film’s highlight, although devotees of the extraordinary moment where Van Morrison, crammed into a hideous sequined outfit, starts high-kicking his way across the stage – looking, as one film critic memorably put it, like a “homicidal elf” – may beg to differ.
In that version, Helm sings the song’s first verse, before Staples takes over. Here, the roles are reversed, so Staples’ gutsy vocal acts as a prelude for Helm’s appearance. Ravaged by illness, his voice is husky and battered, yet perfectly in tune – it has a careworn, down-but-not-out quality. He changes the personal pronouns in one line, so it seems to be referring to his own travails – “I’m gonna do myself a favour, stick around” – and toward the song’s end, lets out a defiant, crackling roar. That Helm had less than a year to live obviously lends his performance poignancy, but as epitaphs go, Carry Me Home isn’t really one suffused with what-might-have-been melancholy: it’s too exuberant, too vibrant for that. It sounds more like a man going out in a blaze of glory.
What Alexis listened to this week
Jasdeep Singh Degun – Sajanava
From his recent album Anomaly, sitar maestro and composer Degun turns up a stunning track somewhere between cinematic ballad and North Indian classical music.