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Mavis and Levon Deliver Music for the Ages

The last performance together by Mavis Staples and Levon Helm has been released as an album

Archival live recordings released as albums are, to use an old expression, two-a-penny - especially in these days of streamed music when content volume obviously increases the somewhat-sparse income artists receive from digital plays.

But when one such release comes from two music legends, the trend is certainly well worth celebrating.

There are fewer bigger names in Americana music than Mavis Staples and Levon Helm. Mavis is from the famous Staples Family which, as The Staple Singers, took gospel music out of the southern church pews and into the billboard charts. And Levon was the drummer in a group of musicians, known as The Band, who helped Bob Dylan transform his songs from acoustic to electric.

Now the last performance by the pair – who were to both have stunning solo careers - has been released as a live album Carry Me Home. The album is somewhat of a sensation, not only because of the wonderful musical interpretation in the 12 tracks, but its release, out of the blue, is a fitting, almost historical, testimony to the sheer majesty of two great artists.

The recording was made eleven years ago, in June 2011, 10 months before Levon’s death on April 19, 2012. He was 71.

Mavis Staples and her band had gone to Levon Helm’s home and recording studio in upstate New York for a special concert as part of Helm’s regular Midnight Ramble shows. He had introduced these in 2004 when he resumed performing after a long bout of throat cancer had threatened to end his career. The concerts proved something of a fund-raiser for his medical expenses.

They were also something of a must for some of the biggest names in roots music, with artists like Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Justin Townes Earl, Rickie Lee Jones, Garth Hudson, Norah Jones and Gillian Welsh among those who performed in what became known as “The Barn.”

Levon and Mavis – and her famous father Pops Staples - had been friends for decades, both on and off the road.

“This was his dream, to have Mavis come to the barn,” Levon’s daughter, Amy, told Rolling Stone. “It was her and Ralph Stanley. He said, ‘If I could just have those two perform …’ then his vision of [the Midnight Ramble] was complete. He’d been dreaming and envisioning her singing in that room since the day he started building it.”

Mavis spent five days at Helm’s Woodstock home as the pair caught up on old times while preparing a set-list for the Saturday night concert.

She told Rolling Stone: “Levon was so happy. He was smiling every day and so healthy and he would walk in each morning with a fresh, beautiful shirt on, sticking his chest out. I said, ‘Levon, you look so good.’ He would say, ‘Oh, Mavis, thank you.’”

Staples sings lead on all the numbers selected for Carry Me Home, but a somewhat husky Helm joins her on “The Weight.” The significance will not be lost on fans for this was the song Levon and Mavis shared vocals on The Last Waltz, the final concert of The Band which film-maker Martin Scorsese turned into a classic movie.

The remaining 11 tracks are an eclectic mix of covers, standards and even some originals.

There are wonderful versions of songs from Helm’s Grammy-winning albums – “Wide River to Cross,” off 2007’s Dirt Farmer, and the Roebuck "Pops" Staples composition “Move Along Train,” and “When I Go Away,” both off 2009’s Electric Dirt.

Another song from Electric Dirt - the Nina Simone standard “I wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” - is sung here by Mavis for the first time. Just to add to the diversity, there are two numbers from the Rolling Stones, “This May Be The Last Time” & “You Got To Move,” and, as might be expected, one from Dylan - “You’ve Got To Serve Somebody.”

And from The Staple Singers comes “This is My Country,” a song the family recorded years ago.

But, not surprisingly, the standout track is a gospel standard.

“Farther Along” has been interpreted by every great artist, from Elvis Presley to The Byrds, but on this particular performance, Mavis makes it her own. In fact, her endearing a cappella treatment could be argued as one of the finest versions of this hymn ever recorded. She is accompanied by soft harmonies from band members and, in hindsight, it all seems like a musical eulogy for her old friend who would be dead within a year.

The sparseness of “Farther Along” obviously contrasts with the remainder of the concert, which essentially saw the merger of two bands for a 15-piece combination. Levon’s contribution included two long-time musical cohorts, daughter Amy and big-name guitarist Larry Campbell, while Mavis had stalwarts in sister Yvonne, Donny Gerrard and R & B guitarist/bandleader Rick Holmstrom. Add a horn section, and what you get is a bluesy orchestral sound, augmented by soothing harmonies.

Yvonne died in 2018 and Mavis lost her last sibling in the famous family when Pervis Staples died in May last year (Pops passed in 2000). Mavis has also been recently coping the loss of Gerrard - a close bandmate for several years - in February.

Mavis is now 82 and back on the road. Indeed she will be strengthening her bond with the Helm family when touring both the U.S. and Europe with Amy – whom Mavis calls “a goddaughter” - over the next few months.

One thing missing when they next meet will be the roses! Mavis told Rolling Stone of how, in the last years of Levon’s life, he would give Amy roses to deliver to her whenever she performed in New York state. “I miss him so much,” said Mavis, “because I don’t get any flowers like that anymore!”

Unlike roses, the music will never die and Carry Me Home will serve as a timeless epitaph for two wonderful musicians.

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads - Americana Music Appreciation


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