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Grammys 2013: Mavis Staples and real feeling in Levon Helm tribute

This year’s Grammys were all about pushing authenticity, and how often that’s just another kind of performance.

But from the audience, two moments underlined the difference between sincerity as a kind of fashion statement, and when it’s the real thing.

Just before the Denver folk-revival trio the Lumineers went on to play their chart-busting but cloying single “Ho Hey,” a production assistant felt a bit nervous about the crowd’s potential response. “OK, everyone,” he said. “I trust you because you’re in the music business, so let's practice this one first. I want you all to sing the chorus,” and prepped the audience in the refrain of “Ho Hey” while the telecast was on commercial.

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They only got a few bars in before killing the rehearsal and rushing back to stage prep, however, and no one got the chance to join in. Perhaps that was for the best, as the planned-on singalong never really materialized during the show – save for an enthusiastic Taylor Swift up front. It was a planned communion that never happened

However, a few songs later, when the legend roundtable of Elton John, T. Bone Burnett and Mavis Staples joined relative newbies Mumford & Sons, Alabama Shakes and Zac Brown in tribute to Levon Helm, Staples had a more unplanned bout of emoting. After the group absolutely burnt down a moving take on “The Weight,” Staples kept going with throaty yelps, well after the band had finished playing. She was a veteran of Civil Rights-era soul, and earned the right to do as she pleased on any Grammys stage.

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But as she unwound a few unmediated howls of feeling, she caught herself and laughed, closing out the tune with a hearty flourish. She didn’t need a stage PA to rile up the crowd – she did it with raw feeling. That’s real communion for you.


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