Mavis Staples & Levon Helm, “Carry Me Home” (ANTI-Records)
Some efforts to bring musical legends together feel contrived, like they were cooked up for a between-albums payoff. Occasionally, though, when the convergence isn't calculated, the moment just needs to be preserved.
Such is the case with “Carry Me Home," a newly-released recording of a memorable encounter between Mavis Staples and Levon Helm during the summer of 2011. In front of an audience at Helm’s Woodstock, New York, studio, the pair rocked their way through a 12-song set of soul, gospel and roadhouse blues that pulsates with gusto and joy.
It’s reminiscent of Helm’s Grammy-winning “Ramble at the Ryman,” a live recording of a 2008 Nashville concert, but with one of the world’s great singers sitting in.
Not that Helm and Staples were at the peak of their powers. Helms would die within a year after a long struggle with cancer, and Staples turned 72 that summer.
Still, on this night they laid it all out there. Staples' voice is full and strong, her approach typically fearless and downright sassy. Helm chimes in on a raucous version of “The Weight," but he hangs back for the most part.
There's an overtly political cover of Curtis Mayfield's classic “This is My Country" that includes complaints about Tea Partiers who want to take the country back to the 1950s or '60s. The politics won't be for everybody, and things have changed considerably since, but the sentiments are delivered with conviction.
On a stellar version of “Wide River to Cross," the Buddy and Judy Miller song that Helm covered memorably on “Dirt Farmer," Helm again defers to Staples on vocals, and the song sounds like it was written for her.
The stage banter isn't included, and the album has a studio quality to it, but that feels like the right call. Otherwise you might be overwhelmed by the only negative vibe this album could possibly leave you with — regret that you weren't there that night.
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