A balmy Tuesday evening, a North London church and a suited and booted band provide the context for a night of great music with the not-so-secret ingredient of Mavis Staples. Fresh off the back of a show-stopping gospel heavy performance at Love Supreme Festival in Glynde Place on the 1st July, Mavis Staples brought her show to London’s magical Union Chapel for two nights as part of the Innervisions Festival 2018. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to attend the second night on July 10th, an extra special birthday show. Mavis’s birthday, not mine.
Mavis started her career by joining the family business, The Staples Singers, led by her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples, singing with her siblings in about 1950. The group used their popularity to raise awareness of several issues and address difficult topics, especially lending their voices in support of the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s. Staples branched out on her own in the late ‘60s but kept her material challenging and she continues to be relevant and provide social commentary through her music today.
The genre tags of Gospel, Soul and R’n’B don’t seem to be enough. Country, Blues and Rock ‘n’ Roll also feature heavily in her repertoire. The latest studio album, If All I Was Was Black released in November 2017 showcases all of these styles. This is a collection of tracks with a variety of influences that speak to the conversation on colour and the ramifications of tensions within the United States (specifically) today. It also deals with the seemingly growing struggle of loneliness and the need for individuals to feel supported. On this occasion, these themes came wrapped with poignancy and were delivered with vocal excellence as an extraordinary journey commenced.
Union Chapel is the epitome of the intimate venue, the lighting and acoustics give artists a helping hand on their way to creating a bond with the audience watching them. Mavis didn’t need this extra help, closeness is who she is. The feeling of being cherished by her was held in a field two weeks ago and on Glastonbury’s Park Stage on a June Saturday afternoon in 2015, as much as in the tiny chapel in which I found myself. However, she took full advantage of the cosy surroundings calling those enthralled by her performance cousins very early on. The dusky haze brought on by the setting sun through the paned glass windows was a nice addition to the spotlights. There were few moments all evening when Mavis was not making eye contact with someone in the audience, interrupted only when she was interacting with her band. We were privy to impromptu stage discussions; a couple of song restarts and lots of laughter.
The intro bars were played for If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me) by The Staples Singers which had the crowd on their feet before ‘The Queen’ was even on the stage (a comment I overheard while waiting, after Nick Corbin had completed his acoustic support set. A comment which I have no problem endorsing. Move over Beyoncé). Introduced to the stage by the band leader, Rick Holmstrom, we were invited to come and go with her for the night. Mavis, I accepted wholeheartedly.
A classic rock ‘n’ roll riff on a heavy bass brought us the upbeat Can You Get to That from the album One True Vine (2013), with Vicki Randle and Donny Gerrard taking up backing vocals we were gifted with a beautifully harmonised acapella ending as the stage was bathed in pure white light. Slippery People, a Talking Heads record covered by The Staples Singers was presented next. This song is disco-style in its original-cover form, as Mavis pleads “put away that gun, he’s alright” the delivery is as gospel rock ‘n’ roll, complete with proper scat chat, harmonies, drum rifts and a Van Halen-esque guitar solo from Rick.
A small breather gives Mavis her first opportunity to chat with the crowd, commenting on how much she loves the venue and how happy everyone looks “same as we left you last year”. Staples brought greetings from Chicago, the windy city, from where she hails and sets the intention for the evening “a little joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations”. As she name-checks her fellow city mates, it is a list of rhythm and blues royalty with whom she’s worked. Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and Pops Staples (chuckle).
She leaves other collaborators out (the list is that long, although more likely as they are not Chicago-born). She promises to do “that [which] needs to be done” to fulfil the intention. And she does, treating us to a mellow reworked version of the Staples Singers, let’s Do It Again released in 1976 with Curtis Mayfield. There’s the chance for a little fun as an unannounced competition ensues with Rick to see who can go the lowest. They are both almost on the floor. Mavis wins, mainly because her diminutive stature gave her a head start.
A second of silence leaves an opening just big enough for a woman in the front row to lead the audience in an impromptu chorus of happy birthday for the leading lady. Mavis beamed as she thanked the hoarse throng saying she’s “grateful to make another year. Y’all can’t get rid of me”.
Build A Bridge from her latest album is a call to notice our surroundings and those around us. Ironic, as the attention was firmly on the stage. The way the song was delivered gave a sense of Aretha Franklin. The stage was awash with red light and Who Told You That, also from her latest studio offering was played with a knowing smile. Mavis looked playful, planning to cause some trouble and take us along for the ride. The “ooo hoos” at the end of this one possibly inspired by KT Tunstall‘s, Black Horse and the Cherry Tree.
In keeping with the impressive contact list Bob Dylan‘s, When Death Comes Creeping (Whatcha Gonna Do?) was led by Donny Gerard and given a make-over. The pair sang in a canon, which gave an earthier spiritual sound to the stripped back rock ‘n’ roll original. It started heavy, you could almost feel a weight on your back, but as the guitars and symbol got louder, the crescendo lifted the mood somehow and the room felt lighter. Take Us Back (2016) encourages us to take the time we need for ourselves and our loved ones leaving you feeling bolstered and lifted. A decisive elbow slam from Mavis was a cue for the band to make an abrupt stop. The band were all so aware of each other, this move was executed perfectly every time. This one, not an exception.
Dedicated (2016) felt like a conversation with a well-meaning aunt. We’re Gonna Make It (2010) was pure gospel complete with vigorous hand clapping which was rousing and motivating, bordering on frantic. Mavis clapped slightly ahead of the band encouraging them to go faster as if that were possible. She took a brief sit down afterwards as if it was all too much. Her words, not mine. Possibly wanting to extend her breather, she tried to hand off the reins but was cheekily denied and Little Bit (2017) brought us right up to date, the first track on If All I Was Was Black.
We’re taken half a step back to Love And Trust from 2016 album Livin’ On A High Note, the acknowledgement that “the simplest things can be the hardest to do” delivered with zeal. You’re Not Alone from 2010 album of the same name was delivered with such depth and conviction that I welled up. There was so much emotion in the room, which continued through No Time For Crying, a commentary on the state of America today. Mavis isn’t shying away from any issue, a message being sent as she implores “we’ve got work to do”. The lyrics on the album version are “people are dying”, these were added to and adapted on the night to talk about children being taken from their mothers, this scenario actually playing out in the States in the last few weeks.
And there we were to close, except the crowd protested, staying on their feet cheering for more and they were not disappointed, again being referred to as cousins. An unplanned “on stage conference with the majors” left me thinking maybe the encore wasn’t in the schedule, which only added to the close feel of the evening, Little Bit was played again but this time used to introduce the band. Rick Holmstrom (band leader and lead guitar), Jeff Turmes (guitar), Stephen Hodges (drums), Vicki Randle (vocals) and Donny Gerrard (vocals). Sounding fresh, Touch A Hand, Make A Friend (1973) by the Staples Singers was the parting gift.
At 79 years old exactly, Mavis Staples has maintained the rich, soulful tone for which she is known, managed to stay relevant and popular, some of her best work (in my opinion) being released in the last 10 years despite a career spanning over 50. The collaborations and credits list is as long and varied as the types of musical styles she has lent her vocals to. Track and studio mates ranging from Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, Prince, The Gorillaz and Arcade Fire, a testament to her talent and versatility. She effortlessly moves through genres adapting her tone and lyrics to suit the message she is trying to convey, her mood always buoyant.
The evening was one big band jam session held in someone’s rather grand living room. I left knowing I’d been in the presence of greatness (Staples has been inducted to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame as well the Blues Hall of Fame). Mavis shared that we made her feel good, she had wanted to give us enough energy that we would be fulfilled. I would suggest she did that and more. When she said she would be grinning in her sleep all night, I think everyone there expected to do the same. The perfect end to the perfect evening. I know I did.
Live review by Sharmayne Robinson and photographs by Sarah Sievers of Mavis Staples at Union Chapel on 10th July 2018
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