Candi Staton, Jazz Cafe, London

Lady sings the funky blues
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The Independent Culture

If Canzetta Staton had been born somewhere else - New York, perhaps, or California - her 1982 conversion to Christianity might have been a lot more self-conscious, a lot more in-your-face. But with a background such as hers - born in rural Alabama in the 1940s, picked cotton in the fields, sang in the church choir from the age of eight - it was the most natural thing in the world.

So, although the gospel-sounding title of her new album His Hands has you fearing the worst as you cross the threshold, there's barely a mention of the G-word tonight, and plenty of good old-fashioned Southern soul. With her chipmunk cheeks and bunny teeth, Candi Staton (it's pronounced Stayton, we learn) looks like she could have stepped out of any photo you've ever seen of her. More importantly, that husky, choking-back-the-tears voice is still intact.

And, happily, from the opening "Suspicious Minds" onwards, Staton and her eight-piece band (including her own son on drums) ensure that it's party time; the Bible remains where it belongs: unbashed and gathering dust in the dressing room.

Tonight, in addition to straight-up soul numbers, such as her million-selling first recording "I'd Rather Be An Old Man's Sweetheart Than A Young Man's Fool" and the Barry Gibb-penned disco classic "Nights On Broadway", we get Staton's funked-up version of Tammy Wynette's "Stand By Your Man", recorded as long ago as 1971, and Merle Haggard's "You Don't Have Far To Go" from this year's His Hands.

The album is the brainchild of Mark Ainley, of Ladbroke Grove-based shop and label, Honest Jon's. The concept with His Hands is similar to that attempted in recent years, with varying levels of success, with Johnny Cash, Solomon Burke, Bettye Lavette and Neil Diamond: take a veteran voice, and rehabilitate it for a younger generation by taking the artist back to basics.

Staton's, though, has always been the voice of experience. Even her biggest, most joyous hit comes laced with harsh life-lessons, jarring with its feelgood sound. Staton knows whereof she speaks. A survivor of an abusive marriage and a descent into alcoholism, she became a minister and has hosted a Christian TV show for two decades. One viewer was the young Will Oldham, aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy, who wrote the title track of His Hands specifically about Staton's life.

It has, it transpires, nothing to do with Jesus, and everything to do with the queasy ambiguity that a lover's hands that could "bring her to passion" are also the hands that commit violence against her. When she sings it tonight, you could hear a pin drop. Even the Cockney geezers braying about the Tottenham result are momentarily silenced.

It takes guts to follow that with the disco anthem "Young Hearts Run Free", but that's exactly what she does, before encoring with "You Got The Love" (she's smart enough to make it the super-cool Source version from 1991, not her own 1986 original, nor the horrible 2005 remix).

Before she vanishes, Candi Staton says something about an autobiography, vaguely promised some time soon. It's sure to be one hell of a read. But it sounds so much better when she sings it.

s.price@independent.co.uk

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