Mavis Staples takes her mission to the stage

“Live in London” finds the 79-year-old singer in excellent form with her new musical family.

  • Tuesday, February 12, 2019 1:30am
  • Life

Mavis Staples, “Live in London”: Mavis Staples was still in grade school when she started singing in front of congregations in South Side churches. Now at 79, Staples remains very much at home responding in the moment with a band and concert hall full of fans. Her periodic live recordings, either with her family group the Staple Singers (the 1965 masterpiece, “Freedom Highway”) or as a solo artist (the 2008 “Live: Hope at the Hideout”), remain excellent introductions to her career.

Similarly, “Live in London” (Anti), recorded in the summer of 2018, serves as a pocket summary of her last decade, when she recorded four studio albums — three produced and written by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and another produced by M. Ward with songs provided by a range of contemporary artists, from Neko Case to Nick Cave.

In many cases the songs are retooled for live performance by Staples and her veteran band. The death of her sister Yvonne Staples in 2018 left Mavis Staples the last remaining family member of the ’70s incarnation of the Staple Singers. But the band she formed after signing with Anti a decade ago has in many ways become her new musical family.

On Ben Harper’s “Love and Trust,” Rick Holmstrom’s wiry guitar solo and the doo-wop vocal inflections of Donny Gerrard and Vicki Randle ratchet up the energy. Holmstrom and Gerrard have become vital on-stage foils for Staples, with the guitarist channeling the treble-soaked riffing of the late family patriarch, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and Gerrard engaging in call-and-response exchanges with the singer as Pops and Mavis once did.

A cover of Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” gets just the right amount of grease with the Staples-Gerrard-Randle vocal interaction and Holmstrom’s guitar floating atop the bump and grind of bassist Jeff Turmes and drummer Stephen Hodges. Together, the band members provide a familiar context for Staples; the format picks up where “Freedom Highway” left off, with Mavis in close dialogue with the singers and musicians. With room to roam in the arrangements, Staples affirms her mastery at turning the less-scripted moments into revelations.

On Benjamin Booker’s “Take us Back,” Randle offers encouragement as Staples begins to conjure hard times and pleads, “I get low, y’all … somebody help, somebody help me.” The backing vocalists underline the consolation in Tweedy’s “You are Not Alone,” and then step back to allow Staples to testify in “No Time for Cryin’.” In a career devoted to advancing civil rights and peaceful protest while expanding the message of family friend Martin Luther King, Staples again uses the arrangement as a springboard to address contemporary issues.

The notion that “we got work to do” has been a driving force in Staples’ career. As in all of her key live recordings, the singer is once again connecting her music to what’s happening in the world. Beneath the energetic exterior, a steely resolve informs the songs. Or, as she tells the audience: “There just ain’t no stoppin’ me, is there?”

— Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune

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