Mavis Staples and Levon Helm first became friends when she performed with the Band while filming the group’s farewell concert, directed by Martin Scorsese as The Last Waltz. Many critics at the time judged the Staple Singers‘ performance of the Band’s classic tune “The Weight” as the highlight of the event. Mavis’ vocals, in particular, were cited for the way she captured the protagonist’s wizened experiences and aching disappointments. Carrying that weight was simultaneously a blessing, a curse, and something shared with the audience through the power of her singing.
More than 30 years later, Helm invited Staples to visit him at his home studio in Woodstock, New York, and appear on his Midnight Rambler program. Helm suffered from throat cancer, and his rough and tumble voice was not the instrument it used to be. He died less than a year after this performance with Mavis in the summer of 2011. He doesn’t sing much on this release, but his drumming is full and strong.
On this night, Helm and Mavis play with a group that consists of members of her traveling band and his house outfit, and together they keep the groove deep and wide. The musical accompaniment varies from barely there, such as on Mavis’ a capella version of “Farther Along” to the blaring horns and dueling electric guitars on “Handwriting on the Wall”. Staples’ rich and powerful voice is front and center on Carry Me Home’s dozen tracks. She sings with conviction whether she’s offering a tribute to the Lord, bemoaning the state of American life for the poor and disenfranchised, or laying down the law to a lover.
The bulk of the material is gospel with secular resonances, songs like “Move Along Train”, “Wide River to Cross”, and “You Gotta Serve Somebody”, show their shared concern with religious matters. She even turns the Staple Singers’ “The Last Time” into something regarding spiritual forces (such as “King Jesus”) instead of a disappointed lover.
Staples (and Helm’s) take on racism, such as their covers of the Impressions’ protest anthem “This Is My Country” and Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”, reveals that even ten years ago when this performance took place, there was a fear of those who were going to try and physically take over the United States and turn back the clock to an earlier era when bigotry was the norm. Donald Trump was not explicitly named, but Barack Obama was President, and Mavis castigated those like Trump who accused Obama of not being American-born or a real American.
Helm is most present vocally on “The Weight”, a song he sang lead on back in the Band’s heyday and associated with Staples. Her vocals take prominence here, but his hoarse vocals are strong enough to put his stamp on their rendition as well. The song and album end with Helm banging the cymbals and Staples’ vocals cooing a “yeah, yeah, yeah”. It doesn’t fade out as much as stop. This track fittingly closes the program because it leaves one wanting more.