Mavis Staples’ career resurgence over the past decade or so might not have been predictable, but by now it feels nearly inevitable. Maybe it was the post-9/11 feeling in the US, maybe it correlates to the shift in politics and the election of Barack Obama in 2008, and maybe it corresponds to the visible fractures in the US right now. Probably her return relates to all of that and more, just as the Staple Singers were utterly relevant during their prime and more. Staples brings a considered empathy to her music, matching the needs and experiences of her audience with committed understanding.
Of course, that understanding wouldn’t mean so much if the music wasn’t so good, and Mavis has matched her unique sense of delivery with strong bands and songwriters over the past few years. None of this new music rejects tradition, though, positing her as a sort of senior adviser to the world of music-enacting-justice. She offers sturdiness even while retaining wisdom. Her latest release, Live in London captures the fullness of this current work. Recorded over two nights in, yes, London, the album highlights where Staples is now without turning back on the past.
The move makes sense artistically. We don’t need new renditions of “Respect Yourself” or “I’ll Take You There” (not that we’d turn them down), but updating Little Milton’s “We’re Gonna Make It” highlights a decades-long persistence. Staples won’t stop. Looking back at the Curtis Mayfield-written “Let’s Do It Again” lets her dodge a simplistic social justice narrative, developing a fullness in the world of the album, as does – in a different way – performing Pops Staples’ “What You Gonna Do”. Staples also revisits her work with David Byrne and “Slippery People,” a track that takes on some weighted meaning in a set performed by a gospel singer searching for hope.
The newer tracks hold up; Staples hasn’t relied on her history to make these new albums. With a tight band backing her, there’s little to signify past or present in the effortless move to perform currently valuable material. “Love and Trust” opens the album as a stomping mission statement. With Staples’s vocals behind these lyrics, they gather potency. “No Time for Cryin'”, a 2017 track co-written by Staples and Jeff Tweedy, gets the audience clapping and makes another anthemic call about the “work to do”. Staples doesn’t fight with nostalgia. She turns history to present needs, and she makes new statements so that her invigorating support doesn’t flag.
Live in London doesn’t offer especially new insight into an artist who has made clear statements. It does, however, show that as she approaches 80, Mavis Staples has an outlook and a vitality that should be influential on today’s culture, whether in smart uses of tradition or new creative ventures. Staples speaks to something deeply broken in our society and in us, but she doesn’t just fight the power or offer a balm. Instead, she encourages and empathizes, providing a hopeful vision and helping to take us there. Maybe the surprise isn’t that she’s returned so powerfully, but that we ever stopped listening.