A generationIn the early 1920s, Levon Helm began hosting live shows he called Midnight Rambles from his studio in his home in Woodstock, New York. In the years since the quintet split, what happened to the band members who weren’t Robbie Robertson was a rare moment of light in a grim saga involving hate, addiction, suicide, bankruptcy and jail time. The Midnight Rambles reinvigorated the careers of drummers and singers, resulting in two Grammy-winning solo albums and a host of guests: Dr. John, Drive-By Truckers, Elvis Costello, Donald Fagen, My Morning Jacket, Norah Jones, Kris Kristofferson.
But perhaps no performer is better suited to the event than this Mavis Staples, he played Midnight Ramble with Helm and his band in 2011. Helm started performing for a bland reason — unable to sing for five years after suffering from throat cancer, and he had medical bills to pay — but his stated goal was to recreate the atmosphere of the traveling tent shows he saw as a child in Arkansas. He explained that “Midnight Walk” is the second adult-only show, “where the songs will be funnier, the jokes will be funnier, and the prettiest dancers will really drop and shake it”.
It’s not hard to imagine that the songs that formed the backbone of Staples and Helm’s live performances were part of the touring repertoire of the 1940s — albeit in a less dangerous part of the night — sung by someone who didn’t sound like Mavis Staples: loud, catchy The voice of the church upbringing, with perseverance. Of course, the blues gospel standards of Hand Writing on the Wall, You Got to Move, and This May Be Last Time (later secularized, the latter two making their way into the Rolling Stones) and a cappella hymn further afield are ancient enough to be featured. Two of Helm’s solo classics, When I Go Away and Wide River to Cross, feel so rooted in pre-rock traditions that they’re probably decades older than they are. The loudspeaker section was added, Helm’s band was cooking, and the Staples sounded majestic: everyone on stage was having a good time, and that feeling permeated the speakers.
In fact, Staples’ conducting ability was enough to change Bob Dylan’s “Gotta Serve Somebody” (“It could be the devil, or it could be the Lord”), a song that angered John Lennon so much that he recorded responded with a gruff, vulgar accent: “You gotta serve yerself / yes, a la, get straight to the point in your fucking ‘ead’. Lennon apparently thought the song was didactic and religious, but If he had heard Staples sing the song, he might have changed his tune. She replaced Dylan’s nasal sneer with one that slowly developed from a low and ominous voice to a series of cathartic guttural growls.
It’s also one of my country, Curtis Mayfield’s funniest protest songs. The original shifts from an angry depiction of slavery and those killed in the civil rights struggle to a sincere plea to a white audience, at odds with the bellicose mood of 1968: “I know you’ll consider/Will we perish unjustly? As a Nations living together?” In the second year of Obama’s presidency, with ominous clouds already gathering on the right, Hulme and Staples adjusted the song’s mood accordingly. Helm’s playing emphasizes the drums, making the rhythm more militaristic than Impressions’ laid-back original. Staples improvises on the lyrics, so the end of the song hints at someone’s patience finally breaking down: “You have some people throwing a party, but no one invites me/They mix Kool-Aid and pass it as tea /I heard a lot of people say they want to take back their country/That doesn’t sound like progress to me.”
The album ends with The Weight, a song Staple Singers covered in 1968 and performed with the band in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz. There’s a compelling argument for it to be the movie’s highlight, though devotees of the extraordinary moment Van Morrison squeezes into an ugly sequined attire starts kicking high on stage – as one film reviewer said It looks like a “killer elf”, as the family says – that may vary.
In that version, Hulme sang the first stanza of the song before Staples took over. Here, the roles are reversed, so Staples’ bold voice serves as a prelude to Hulme’s appearance. Suffering from illness, his voice was hoarse and weathered, but the tone was flawless—it had a melancholy, low, but not lost quality. He changes the personal pronoun in one line, so it appears to be a reference to his own hardships—”I’m going to do myself a favor and keep going”—with a defiant crackle at the end of the song. With less than a year left to live, Helm clearly endows his performance with poignancy, but as the epitaph goes on, Carry Me Home isn’t really as full of melancholy as it may have been: it’s too exuberant, too vibrant. It sounds more like someone walking out in glory.
what alexis listened to this week
Jasdeep Singh Degun – Sajanava
On his latest album, Anomaly, sitar master and composer Degun has a stunning track somewhere between film ballads and North Indian classical music.