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Monday, May 27
The Indiana Daily Student

arts music review

COLUMN: ‘Carry Me Home’ proves Mavis Staples is still fresh 50 years later


The timbral signature of the American south has evolved into a number of different genres throughout its decades, ranging from bebop to the blues to church hymns. This sound isn’t measured by any quantifiable metric, but each of these traditions is distinguished by the same thing: soul.

Mavis Staples has been a savant of soul since the seventies, keeping up with heavy hitters like Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin. Her newest release, “Carry Me Home,” proves that, even in a live setting, Staples has not fallen behind in her age. Every song is oozing with feeling, and Staples leads a tight backing band forcefully.

Recorded in 2011 at Levon Helm’s home and featuring a combination of Staples’ and Helm’s backing bands, the album is a collection of classic soul tunes, beginning with “This Is My Country.” This song discusses the issues plaguing the U.S. at the time, with Staples calling out problems of hunger and racism.

Many of these issues are as relevant upon the album’s release as they were during its recording, but the song does date itself through its mention of President Obama. As joyous as “This Is My Country” sounds, it serves as a grim reminder of how little progress there’s been since 2011.

“Hand Writing on the Wall” calls back to Staples’ early work with her family band, the Staple Singers. The original 1978 recording is excellent, and listeners will struggle not to move along to the rhythm, but this performance really steps up the energy, with a faster tempo and more fleshed-out instrumentals.

Strong blues tonality aids the repetitive lyrics, creating a modern take on a classic bluegrass sound. Solo sections allow members of the backing band to play, with a tasteful key change going into the saxophone solo.

“I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free” again challenges an oft-arranged standard of the soul genre, originally written by Billy Taylor. With other renditions by the likes of Don Shirley, Nina Simone and John Denver, Staples and Helm’s recording is among strong company, but it holds its own with grace.

Staples doesn’t feel the need to reinvent the wheel on “I Wish I Knew,” and she shouldn’t. Rather than force originality as the leader of the ensemble, she trusts the musicians behind her to create something unique in their performance, which they do without a hitch.

On the other side of this spectrum is “When I Go Away,” which features the most complex arrangement on the album. In this style, it can be easy to over-arrange, stifling the spontaneous creativity of the individual musicians. “When I Go Away” skirts this line, leaving room for improvisation and bringing the band to synchronicity at times for emphasis.

In the boldest of these choices, the instruments drop out, save for Helm’s drumming, making room for Staples and her background singers to showcase an interweaving a capella section which spectacularly crashes back into the original groove.

The final track on the album, “The Weight,” is the first to feature the vocal talents of Levon Helm. As the anchor of their album, the song also represents one of the earliest connections between Helm and Staples. “The Weight” was first recorded by The Band —of which Helm was a member —in 1968, and then covered by the Staple Singers in the same year, making it an important part of both their careers.

Moving away from the sound of the blues, it adopts some stylings of classic rock without losing the essential trappings of soul. A light, cheerful tune, “The Weight,” serves as a satisfying conclusion to the record.

Despite the decade-long delay in its release, “Carry Me Home” doesn’t feel stale or outdated. Staples and Helm, along with their respective bands, create an hour of live music dripping with soul that rivals anything they put out at the height of their careers. Staples’ golden days may be behind her, but this live album shows that she still has her spark.

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