Mavis Staples | 11.04.16

The veteran Staples Singer and solo careerist Mavis Staples brought to the Sheldon the holy trifecta of faith, hope, and love.


The Sheldon Concert Hall, St. Louis

“What the world needs now is love, sweet love.”

“Put a little love in your heart.”

“Love’s in need of love today.”

And Mavis Staples is sure doing her part. In the darkest moments of recorded political race-to-the-bottom, the veteran Staple Singer and solo careerist Mavis Staples brought to the Sheldon the holy trifecta of faith, hope, and love, gracing all of us lucky fans with an uplifting, life-affirming evening of marked optimism and camaraderie, celebrating the light we share with a touch of condemnation for those who would try to tear us apart. We came to the Sheldon wanting so badly to breathe a little into the spaces that have not been touched by this ugliest of campaigns, to remember what it feels like to see progress, not apocalypse, on the horizon.

And Mavis delivered like no one else can—certainly no other septuagenarian—giving us another dose of the heaven she and her family have been offering for decades. All of us desperate for someone older and wise to tell us it’s going to be alright, we were glamoured for a full hour and half and carried the afterglow with us, out of the theater and all the way home. It was a timely reminder of how good it feels to be confident about the future, a bucket of bracingly cold water in the face to snap you out of smear-tactic doldrums and Eeyore glum. It felt so good that, once you had a taste, you’d look at your dismal, the-end-is-nigh newsfeed in a whole new, impatient light. It was a reminder of some of the greatest gifts that music can give: idealism and fellowship.

Beginning with the classic “Come Go with Me,” the diminutive Mavis Staples graciously invited us on a journey to another dimension, not the one where we inevitably elect the wrong person president, but the more rapturous version of the future: “If you’re ready come go with me/ No hatred will be tolerated/ Peace love all between the races/ Love is the only transportation.” Skipping through the Staple Singer songbook, incorporating some of her new material written for her by various artists, and surprising with a genre-spanning selection of covers, Staples effectively accomplished her mission of bringing us “joy, happiness, inspiration, and positive vibrations” (though cautiously optimistic about how long these effects could last, given the political circumstances).

On her own classics and others’, Staples shuffled and bounced with enthusiasm, honoring each note sung in accordance with the guitar in the opener; all the dee-dee-dee-dees and nah nah nah nahs in “Respect Yourself”; as well as all every hep-hep-hep in a spectacular rendition of the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.” About this, she remarked, “That David Byrne, he can really write a song!” Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” provided the backup vocalists, Donny Gerrard and Vicki Randle, a chance to shine, both forces in their own right.

Gerrard’s stunning vocal range covered everything from the classic bass line “I wanna know” to the Aaron Neville–range highs in “We’re Gonna Make It.” In addition to her vocal chops, Randle played a most zealous tambourine while head-banging a cloud of gray curls to give King Buzzo a run for his money. Clad in all black and white, with just a few blue stripes on the drummer’s tie, all of the extraordinarily talented members in her band have their own albums in varying stages of production. (Gerrard’s and Randle’s apparently sold out from the merch table earlier in the tour.) Rick Holmstrom banged out some Chuck Berry–caliber licks and distracted us during Staples’ brief intermission with some spectacular feats of guitar solo dynamics, strumming just as distinctly with the guitar a little bit softer now, deamplified, then little bit louder now, played into a live mic, teasing us line by line until the headliner finally returned.

Also available for purchase were compilations of Staple Singers recordings, including “that old-time music” the Staples daughters recorded “just singing with Pop’s guitar. That’s good music.” While I wholeheartedly admire her ear for a good contemporary sound, and delight at her take of hits across the genres, “Wade in the Water” drew something special out of here, and is where Staples really shined. This classic elicited a series of “Good God Almighty!” from so deep down that she “almost forgot my age for a minute there” and had to sit to collect herself (for all of five seconds). She worked the front row for “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend,” and shouted out to all her St. Louis–region family in the audience.

While the Staples songbook is certainly her strength—she has been delivering this gospel since a family band in 1957, after all—Staples has continued to build on this foundation. The night flew by as she kept us guessing which selections from her latest album, Livin’ on a High Note, would make the cut, and what other treats lay in store for us. On this particular evening, we were treated to “Love and Trust,” a contribution written by Ben Harper, and “Dedicated” by Bon Iver, whose name Mavis charmingly struggled to get right: “Bon ee-VER? Bon EYE-ver? Well, it’s Justin Vernon; that’s his real name. But I like to say Bon EYE-ver. It sounds like a cologne.” Both songs, written specifically for Staples, made the most of the low rumble her voice has grown into over the years as it contributes to their distinct styles. The former smacks of Harper’s sunny-yet-bluesy acoustic guitar work with a touch of “Golden Years” backing vocals, while the latter feels reflective and personal, like a conversation with a close friend and spiritual guide.

Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” was a perfect example of Staples’ timelessness: “There’s battle lines being drawn/ Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong/ Young people speaking their minds/ Getting so much resistance from behind.” In the 1960s, Staples was the “young people” speaking her mind about civil rights and racial inequality. Decades later, it’s still fresh on her mind that young people have a valid contribution to make to political discourse. It suggests that age can have one of two effects on one’s character: You can grow bitter and disappointed that the world has remained the same in the ways you had hoped would change while at the same time begrudging things changing too quickly, for the worse; or you can grow wiser and calmer with the insight that things change and stay the same from the half-full perspective. Staples is an inspiration. After a sincere rendition of The Band’s “The Weight,” she brought us home with an offer to show you the world through her enlightened eyes in the quintessential Staple Singers anthem “I’ll Take You There.”

She promised to send us all home to bed with a smile on our faces. She could see she had outdone herself, directing us home grinning like a bunch of sweepstakes winners. What she couldn’t see was the renewed faith in humanity that she imparted, and so she continues carrying the torch of the Staples family legacy. | Courtney Dowdall

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