Everything’s smaller than I imagine. My friend dragged me here on the promise of seeing a living legend. “She’s religious and political and I think you’ll like her,” he told me. I’ve heard “I’ll Take You There”, I think, so I go along. But the club’s smaller than I expected, and we can practically get up to the stage. She’s got a little band, too, just a three-piece with some back-up singers. The sound from the stage is sparse, what someone so inclined might call raw. There’s no boom here, no pronouncement of “Legend”. Then Mavis starts singing.
I hadn’t recognized those re-worked opening notes of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and now that I’ve caught the groove, I’m taken with the band, but I’m only paying attention with one ear, because this woman on stage is overpowering me. Somehow she mixes this deep intensity with a certain brightness. Her voice is showing a little wear, but more so when she speaks than when she sings, and she pushes through that with a delivery that’s both strong and nuanced.
There’s a bit of Southern Baptist preacher here, but otherwise very little superstar aura. The band stays in the pocket, knowing how to ride a groove and, like the singer, how to work repetition (that “Wade in the Water” song emphasizes that approach). The singer, in the midst of the grind, comes across as both a leader and as one of us, and yet not like a politician. Maybe I’m just buying into the myth (“She was singing these songs in the ‘60s,” my friend says, “at rallies and stuff!”), but she’s drawing on something profound. I don’t hear much music like this.
She takes these songs that you might know, like “This Little Light” or “We Shall Not Be Moved”, and turns them into something else. “This Little Light” joins with the other songs to become a protest song, driven and intent, changing from a Sunday school singalong into a rally anthem. At the same time, she keeps the bitterness out of her voice. Don’t get me wrong—I think she’s pissed. It’s just that she gets around the issue of anger and addresses herself to the positive. “Shine on love, shine on peace,” she says between songs, and this isn’t dippy sloganeering. It’s an edict to put your energy into the right places.
Mostly the band and the singer keep to a slow groove, but there’s some funk in the set, too, and the slow-paced “Why Am I Treated So Bad” keeps it funky, even if it lets the sweat on my forehead dry a little. So far, the slower numbers haven’t dragged down the set; this vocalist keeps everything hot even when it’s cool, if you get that.
Then they turn it loose, so to speak, with “Freedom Highway”. I haven’t finished my beer, kinda sloshing it around at the end of “Why Am I Treated So Bad”, and then I’m jostled and spill it and don’t really care. By the time I could lose it if I were someone who generally lost it, that singer lets out this scream—like this cathartic, angry, powered-up blast—and I’m a little undone. She knows how to do it, I guess, but she doesn’t sound at all like she’s working it. She’s just like this, is all I can figure.
“We Shall Not Be Moved” does last a little too long, and I’m sorry I dropped my beer. We get a story and then right into “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, which carries much less of a folkie vibe than I’d expect. She said that it was the first song a “Pops” taught her, so I guess she’s had some time to figure it out. I don’t know that I’ve enjoyed this song so much before.
We get another traditional, and then they go into the one song that probably everyone came for, “I’ll Take You There”. It fits right in with the mood of the night, optimistic, but still part of a gospel/Civil Rights tradition. The guitarist has reworked the hook nicely, and the fact that the audience takes over the title phrase (and some of the others) makes the conclusion of the show a community affair. It’s that leader giving it back to the people again.
The lights come on and I walk out. I’m feeling ready to take on the world, but not yet ready to leave the club. My friend is ahead of me, waiting. I don’t say anything and we start walking.