Mavis Staples, Jazz Cafe, London
Monday 22 November 2010
Small of stature but colossal of voice, Mavis Staples is a potent reminder of the Civil Rights era, her power undiminished in her seventies.
The last few years have seen a remarkable renaissance in her career, thanks partly to producers like Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy, the latter bringing the best out of her on the album You Are Not Alone. "Ain't no keepin' us back," she tells us. "We got a new CD out. Keepin' up with the teenyboppers!" At frequent intervals she reminds us that we can solve all our Christmas gift needs by buying five or six copies for friends and family.
Her set leans heavily on the new album, which is a typical mix of gospel and intelligent pop. An understated version of Randy Newman's "Losing You" silences the club. She uses "The Weight", by The Band, to share the vocals around (the backing vocalists include her sister, Yvonne).
The drummer Stephen Hodges drives things along with the Southern soul kick of the MGs' Al Jackson and the bassist Jeff Turmes snakes sinuous, loping grooves through each song. Rick Holmstrom produces an amazing array of licks and fills – given his sharp suit, slicked back hair and Telecaster, it's impossible not to be reminded of Steve Cropper, and as with the MGs, you find yourself checking that so few musicians can produce such a satisfying but spartan sound.
As ever, Staples' repertoire stresses values of empathy and collectivity that were forged in the Civil Rights era. Her father's "Freedom Highway", with its commanding refrain of "March!", she tells us, was written for "the big march, from Selma to Montgomery." "I'm still on that march," she says. "There's a lot still to be done." The new material has the same we-not-me attitude, from the funky swing of "We're Gonna Make It" to the easy lilt of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Wrote A Song For Everyone". "You Are Not Alone" is a tender highlight, with an infectious chorus: "Isolated and afraid? Open up, this is a raid, I want to get through to you."
The only possible finale is The Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There", for which the crowd is cajoled into action on the mantra-like refrain. "The Staple Singers been takin' you there for 60 years and we ain't tired yet," says Staples, proudly, before doing the worst Arnold Schwarzenegger impression ever to promise: "I'll be back!"
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