Mavis Staples: New York – 4 November 2014

Age has slowed her a bit, but at 75, the gospel great delivers
Mavis Staples

“We bring you joy, happiness, inspiration and some positive vibrations,” a beaming Mavis Staples proclaimed to a full house at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall.

She’d just finished her third number, a cover of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” that was a 1984 hit for the Staple Singers, the fabled gospel group her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples founded in 1950 and which featured Mavis and her sisters Cleotha and Yvonne, and her brother Pervis. Her show, part of Lincoln Center’s annual White Light Festival, marked her return to the venue after her acclaimed 2013 American Songbook appearance.

Mavis made good on her proclamation in a 90-minute set comprising classics from the Staples’ catalog and material from her most recent, Jeff Tweedy-produced album, One True Vine. Joy? Oh, yes. Happiness, inspiration, and good vibes? Yes, yes, yes. And a lot of salty humor, too. Though a bit slowed by age – she’s 75 – Staples still delivers. Her voice, always husky, is more so now, and she complained early in the show about a “frog back here in my throat.” (In a hilarious stream of consciousness, she wondered, “If I give it something to eat maybe it’ll get out of there. But no bugs! Uh uh, no bugs!”) Her celebrated scream – as thrilling as James Brown’s or Wilson Pickett’s – still electrifies. Her phrasing and timing remain as flawlessly incisive as ever, and age has done nothing to diminish her voice’s warmth and ineffable soulfulness.

Backed by a rootsy blues-rock trio (Rick Holstrum on guitar, bassist Jeff Turmes and drummer Stephen Hodges) and three singers (Donny Gerrard, Vicki Randle, and sister Yvonne, who spent a good part of the show seated upstage), she opened with the Staples’ 1973 hit, “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)”. The song envisions a world where there’s “no economical exploitation and no political domination.” Mavis Staples is a committed Christian — her family’s band used to be known as “God’s hit makers” — but there is nothing exclusionary or oppressive about her faith, and the utopia envisioned in “If You’re Ready” is nondenominational. Her Jesus has always seemed as much a civil rights leader or union organizer as a messiah, which probably is why this atheist (and I know I’m not alone) never has found her or the Staples’ religiosity off-putting.

Also from the Staples’ catalog came the 1971 hit “Respect Yourself” (Hey Mavis, I’m still wondering what a “good cahoot” is) and “Let’s Do It Again”. The latter, written by Curtis Mayfield for the soundtrack of the 1975 Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier movie of the same name, isn’t exactly typical Staples fare. Mayfield’s lyrics celebrate carnal love rather than the divine variety: “Sweet love in the midnight / Good sleep come mornin’ light.” No doubt, some of the band’s more devout followers were scandalized. But as Mavis once said, “The devil ain’t got no music. It’s all God’s music”.

In the ‘60s, the Staple Singers turned to socially conscious pop, a move that alienated some gospel purists but broadened their audience. In 1967, they covered Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”, and Mavis and band played it at Lincoln Center, with guitarist Holstrum expertly simulating Pops’ country blues style. Also channeling Pops — his vocals, that is — was Donny Gerrard, or “Deacon” as Mavis kept calling him. The tall, lean Gerrard, looking like a well-tailored minister in his suit, evoked Pops’ distinctive sound, with its mix of light, sweet, and grainy. He was just as effective as a more extroverted soul singer in his duet with Mavis on Little Milton’s “We’re Gonna Make It”.

Although the show was titled One True Vine, Mavis performed only three of the album’s tracks — “Can You Get to That?”, a Funkadelic number warning against mixing up romance and finance; Pop Staples’ “I Like the Things About Me”, about overcoming racial self-hatred (“There was a time / When I wished my hair was fine”); and, best of all, “Holy Ghost”, with a seated Mavis pensively – and devastatingly – voicing spiritual longing tinged with doubt and insecurity: “Some holy ghost keeps me hanging on/I feel the hands, but I don’t see anyone, anyone.”

The Vine numbers all sounded stronger than on the album, in no small part due to her trio, which, while largely sticking to the record’s arrangements, made everything more vivid and exciting. (Tweedy’s teenage son Spencer, who plays on the album, isn’t a bad drummer, but the kid’s no match for a grownup like Stephen Hodges.)

The show’s peak came with “Freedom Highway,” a civil rights anthem written by Pops and recorded by the Staple Singers in 1965 for the historic march that year from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. “Pops wrote that song, y’all!” she exclaimed. “I was there … and I’m still here!” It’s obvious how meaningful “Freedom Highway” remains to her, and she gave it everything she had, whooping and shouting and working the crowd like a preacher on fire.

After the high-energy blast of “We’re Gonna Make It”, with its double-time, gospel-style coda, Mavis walked offstage to take a break while her band played two instrumentals that featured Rick Holstrum. (A few bars of Cannonball Adderley’s “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” found their way into his blues-based excursions.) At one point, Mavis, seated in the wings, expressed her appreciation for the guitarist with a delighted “Well, well!”

The show ended with an extended version of the Staples’ 1972 chart topper, “I’ll Take You There”, with Mavis urging the audience to help out by singing “just four little words,” which were, of course, the song’s title and chorus. We obliged, naturally. You don’t say no to Mavis Staples. Not after she’s given you an evening of joy, happiness and an abundance of positive vibrations.