It was a match made in heaven, a dream come true for fans and performers alike. The 2011 summertime concert at Levon Helm’s Barn in Woodstock featuring Helm and gospel icon Mavis Staples was a celestial express with Mavis and Helm holding the throttle wide open. Carry Me Home, a live recording of that Midnight Ramble, would be the last time the two would perform together, and it feels like they might have sensed that, making sure they squeezed every drop of emotion from the songs and each other.
Helm passed away in April of the following year, and this was one of his last recordings. It’s a great sendoff, a powerful testimony to the power and glory these two could stir up.
Staples and Helm brought their bandmates and select family members for musical support on this gospel throwdown, and the framework they erected is an almighty one. The combined bands create a rootsy symphony orchestra and the harmonies, God a-mighty! Amy Helm and Teresa Williams plus Mavis’ sister Yvonne and longtime Staple staple and Pops soundalike Donny Gerrard all hymned up in a gospel suit are as close to nirvana as you’ll get in this life. Add in the licks of Pops stand-in Rick Holmstrom in Mavis’ band and Helm guitar-slinger Larry Campbell and you’re as gospeled up as a human can be. On a clip for the rehearsal of “You Got to Move,” Helm’s face is lit up like the Lord’s spotlight is shining upon him as he basks in the celestial glow of Staples’ churchiness.
Staples’ performance on “Farther Along” will break your heart while it uplifts your spirit. It’s the rawest vocal Staples has ever put on record. Her voice crackling with emotion on this a cappella hymn, she belts it out like she was singing at her own funeral, glad to be on the way to glory but sad to leave family and loved ones behind, for now.
It’s an eclectic setlist, including tunes covered or authored by notables including Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Buddy Miller, and Curtis Mayfield, and even a couple the Rolling Stones took a swing at a while back, “You’ve Got to Move,” and “Maybe the Last Time.”
Helm had made a remarkable comeback from cancer by this time with a triumphant show headlining MerleFest in 2008 as well as three Grammys for 2007’s Dirt Farmer, 2009’s Electric Dirt, and 2011’s Ramble at the Ryman. When Helm jumps in for his first and only lead vocal on the record, on the closer, “The Weight,” it’s as heartbreaking as it is glorious, a fitting farewell to a beloved roots master captured at the height of his powers alongside the first lady of funky gospel soul.
Carry Me Home is out May 20 on Anti- Records.