If ever there was a singer who could take a rock song and make it her own it has to be Mavis Staples. With her tight as tight band she put her distinctive mark on a few songs that you would not usually associate with cover versions.
Of course the opening song had to be one of the famous Staples Singers numbers, If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me). The spiritual and soulful opening grabbed everyone in the Clapham Grand Threatre in South London immediately and you could feel that gospel vibe, I mean it really bit you. The funked up rhythms of Talking Heads anthem Slippery People filled the room and slinked into play. Is it possible that this version is better than the original?
But wait, is gets better the gigantic guitar riff of Can You Get To That rings through the air and the wonderfully solid band gather pace and join in to bring the Funkadelic classic to crescendo and then Mavis lets rip. It is hard to believe she is 76 in a few days time. She has been a professional singer since she was ten years old and has a catalogue that out strips Bettye LeVette and Aretha Franklin.
Respect Yourself was a massive Staples Singers hit back in 1971 and the family group had recorded the song on the influential Stax label. In those sessions the group worked with Steve Cropper and Booker T & The MGs. Mavis is no stranger to working with quality musicians and the trio of Rick Hollstrom on guitar and vocals, Jeff Turmes on bass, guitar & vocals and Stephen Hodges on drums are ultra hot. In fact they were recommended to Mavis Staples for her 2007 tour and producer Jeff Tweedy used them on the Grammy award winning You Are Not Alone in 2010 to great effect.
Phew! It is hot in the Clapham Grand tonight and Mavis feels the heat. She takes to a bar stool to slow down and sings the beautifully beguiling Holy Ghost which, as the line says, just keeps hanging on. Greeting friends, giving merchandising plugs and making fun of Kanye West at Glastonbury telling us that any of her band are more of a superstar than him and that she really does prefer George Clinton.
Some thanks go out to Ryan Montbleau not only for composing a sweet as sugar song on her new album but also for being her opening act tonight. The backing singers also have a great pedigree Donny “Deacon” Gerrard had hits with the group Skylark and Vicki Randall is a multi-talented musician and was the first female member of the Tonight Show band.
The night hits a peak with the Roebuck “Pops” Staples written Freedom Highway, that song has such a history it is impossible to say how I feel about it. Written about the march from Selma to Montgomery it is major a symbol of the civil rights movement. “From that march, words were revealed, and a song was composed.” Mavis seems to be immensely proud singing it.
A slight instrumental pause lets the band show off with an atmospheric version on Summertime before launching into one of the best crowd sing-a-long’s I have had with I’ll Take You There. The encore includes another powerful song which takes on new meaning when given the Mavis Staples treatment. The Weight by The Band is a wonderful way to finish as she urges all to “put the load right on me”.
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Photography & Review by Simon Jay Price. Mavis Staples @ Clapham Grand 30th June 2015
Simon has his own great site right here: www.simonjayprice.com