In the early ’00s, Levon Helm began hosting live shows he dubbed Midnight Rambles from a studio at his home in Woodstock, NY. It was a rare bright moment in the history of what happened to the band’s members who weren’t Robbie Robertson, in the years following the quintet’s split, a grim saga of bitter enmity, addiction, suicide, bankruptcy and imprisonment. The Midnight Rambles shows reinvigorated the drummer and singer’s career, spawned two Grammy-winning solo albums, and attracted a host of guests: Dr. John, Drive-By Truckers, Elvis Costello, Donald Fagen, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson .
But perhaps no artist was as suited to the event as Mavis Staples, who performed a Midnight Ramble with Helm and his band in 2011. Helm had prosaic reasons for starting the shows — after suffering from throat cancer that left him unable to sing for five years and having to pay medical bills for years — but his stated goal was to recreate the atmosphere of the traveling tent shows that he had seen as a child in Arkansas. The “Midnight Walk,” he explained, is a second adult-only performance, “where the songs get a little juicier, the jokes get funnier, and the prettiest dancer really gets down and shakes it.”
It’s not hard to imagine the songs that form the backbone of Staples and Helm’s live set as part of the repertoire of a 1940s touring show – albeit in the less daring part of the evening – sung by someone Mavis Staples didn’t sounded dissimilar: a big, captivating, church-raised voice with a pithy pull. Certainly the bluesy gospel standards are Hand Writing on the Wall, You Got to Move, and This May Be the Last Time (later secularized, the latter two found entry into the Rolling Stones’ oeuvre) and the a cappella hymn Farther Along, all old enough to be 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 they might predate them by decades. Enriched with a horn section, Helm’s band simmers and Staples sounds sovereign: the feeling that everyone on stage is having a good ol’ time seeps through the speakers.
In fact, Staples is authoritative enough to transpose Bob Dylan’s 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 harsh, Scouse-accented response: ” Yer gotta serve yerself / That’s right, la, take that right up your shit. Lennon obviously found the song didactic and devout, but he might have changed his tune if he had heard Staples sing it. She replaces Dylan’s mocking snort with a voice that slowly progresses from guarded and foreboding to a series of cathartic, guttural growls.
Also transformed is This Is My Country, one of Curtis Mayfield’s most intriguing protest songs. The original shifts from anger in its depictions of slavery and lives lost in the civil rights struggle to a heartfelt plea for sanity to white listeners, at odds with the militant mood of 1968: “I know you’ll have consideration / Shall we perish unjustly or live together as a nation?” In the second year of the Obama presidency, with ominous storm clouds gathering on the right, Helm and Staples adjust the mood of the song accordingly. Helm’s playing emphasizes drum rolls, giving the rhythm a more militaristic feel than the laid-back Impressions original. Staples extemporizes the lyrics so that the song’s ending suggests someone’s patience is finally snapping: “You’ve got some people throwing a party but no one invited me / They mix the Kool-Aid and make it tea / I hear a lot of people say they want to take back their country / Doesn’t sound like progress to me.”
The album closes with The Weight, a song the Staple Singers covered and performed with the band in Martin Scorsese’s 1968 film The Last Waltz. There’s a compelling argument that this is the film’s climax, though fans of the extraordinary moment when Van Morrison, crammed into a hideous sequined outfit, begins making his way across the stage – and looks like one film critic memorably put it, like a “murderous elf” – might disagree.
In this version, Helm sings the first verse of the song before Staples takes over. The roles are reversed here, with Staples’ bold vocals serving as a prelude to Helm’s performance. Plagued by illness, his voice is hoarse and battered but perfectly in tune – it has a worried, seedy quality. He changes personal pronouns on a line, seems to refer to his own troubles – “I’ll do myself a favor, stay here” – and let out a defiant, sizzling roar towards the end of the song. Helm having less than a year to live obviously adds poignancy to his performance, but as it is said, “Carry Me Home” isn’t really imbued with anything that could have been melancholy: it’s too exuberant, too lively, for that. It sounds more like a man going out in a blaze of fame.
What Alexis heard this week
Jasdeep Singh Degun—Sajanava
On his current album Anomaly, sitar maestro and composer Degun presents a breathtaking track somewhere between cinematic ballad and north Indian classic.