Admittedly, I’m a sucker for a live album, particularly those sonic snapshots that capture an artist in a way that even the greatest studios or producers in the world could never hope to harness. The starkness of Townes Van Zandt at the Old Quarter, the sloppy glory of The Who on Live at Leeds, James Brown moving heaven and earth from the Apollo– drop a needle on any of these records and you’re instantly transported, breathing in the smoke and sweat of Houston, reverberating with each maniacal Moon crash, and feeding off the revolution. No, you weren’t there, but when the stars and the speakers are spaced just right, you might be. Recently, I’ve been flung as far back as ’89 when The Replacements slew at the University of Wisconsin and ’74 when ol’ Waylon put ’em through the paces in Dallas and Austin, and if any moment deserves a spot on the pedestal, certainly it is a night in Woodstock, NY where a precious few witnessed the last hurrah between Mavis Staples and Levon Helm.
In 2003, Levon Helm, the backbone of The Band, a bonafide Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, was facing ruin. His home and studio had burned in 1991, and though he’d rebuilt, a 1998 throat cancer diagnosis combined with the brutal radiation treatments that followed robbed him of his voice as well as the ability to tour, and he was facing foreclosure. An influential drummer, Helm concentrated on his technique (he would, miraculously, regain the use of his voice) and instigated a rent party cloaked as a revival that would come to fame as The Midnight Ramble. The price of admission was $100 and a covered dish for the pre-show potluck supper, but the real feast was on stage, and generations of artists and admirers made the pilgrimage for a chance to break bread and revel alongside their friend and hero.
The bond between Mavis Staples and Levon Helm first formed when her father, “Pops” Staples, had gotten his hands on a recording of The Band’s “The Weight”. Impressed, Pops included the song on the iconic Staple Singers’ 1968 album, Soul Folk In Action, and in 1976, the family would join The Band in a defining performance for the swan song film The Last Waltz (1978). Mavis and Levon would remain friends for over four decades, and when the opportunity arose in the early summer of 2011, the two made a date to ramble. Recorded and witnessed on June 3rd of that year, Carry Me Home chronicles their final shared performance.
The set kicks off with an invigorating rendition of The Impressions’ “This Is My Country” that manages to be funky, bluesy, hillbilly, and wonderfully confrontational (“They’re mixin’ up the Kool-Aid, ya’ll,” declares Mavis, “And passin’ it off as tea.”) before second-lining into a brassy cut of “Trouble In Mind” that surrenders to the unadorned purity of “Farther Along” and the pre-rock n’ roll hallelujah of “Handwriting On The Wall”.
Mavis’s commanding earnestness of Billy Taylor’s anthemic ” I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” (essentialized by Nina Simone in 1967) is joyous, but through the lens of 2022 is a not so subtle reminder that even in 2011, with an African-American president in the White House for the first time, the fight for Civil Rights and justice was (and continues to be) nowhere close to finished.
Levon, whose vocals remain carefully restrained in favor of deep pocket drumming nevertheless rises to the occasion of “Move Along Train”, a cut originally released on The Staples’ Freedom Highway, and a tune Helm himself brandished on his final studio effort, 2009’s Electric Dirt. Elsewhere, lovingly or defiantly, the ensemble rescues back “This May Be The Last Time” from Mick & Keef before righteously diving into the thundery groove of Levon Helm Band guitarist Larry Campbell’s “When I Go Away”.
The Buddy and Julie Miller penned “Wide River To Cross” becomes a soul-soaked ballad in the employ of Mavis Staples while on the classic “You Got To Move”, Levon’s sticks keep a rowdy time reminiscent of his freewheelin’ days barnstorming dives from Little Rock to Toronto behind the camel-walkin’ Ronnie The Hawk.
Of all the songs performed throughout the Ramble, the Johnny-come-marching raunch of Dylan’s “You Got To Serve Somebody” seems to rile something akin to elation out of the indeterminate number of spectators– an audience kept low & tight in the mix that manages to come spiritually unglued when Mavis launches into the first line. No one could’ve possibly wondered any different, but just in case, Roebuck Staples’ daughter testifies, “I don’t know about you, but I choose to serve the Lord, and I’m gonna serve Him ’til I die!”
Carry Me Home closes rightfully or inevitably with one of the greatest songs of the 20th Century, “The Weight”, complete with harmony from sister Yvonne Staples, daughter Amy Helm, and an oddly satisfying horn solo (tuba?) that surely would have left the late Allen Toussaint smiling– or cussin’ that he didn’t think of it for The Last Waltz! Sincerely, Levon handles the reins of verse number three, deciding, ultimately, that the best thing to do is to stay and keep Anna Lee company… Of course, he can’t.
It would be easy to consider that for Mavis, Levon, and the players from both respective bands, this particular Midnight Ramble was just one more, another medicine show in a career full of them– a good one perhaps, but that’s all. Personally, I won’t subscribe to the notion. Whether any finality was figured into their plans, I have faith that Levon Helm, who passed away at 71 on April 19th, 2012, and Mavis Staples, who continues to be a light and a force at 82, as well as all those blessed to be in Woodstock on a summer night, felt the true weight of history. And that, for the believers, is what makes any album, any record, any moment live.