Friday, January 21, 2011

Live: Mavis Staples, 1/18/11, at The Bell House, Brooklyn, NY


As the speaker-pumped intermission music faded and the the lights began to dim, a warm welcoming applause filled the room as the band members took their places on stage. The applause quickly rose and became a roar as Mavis Staples appeared and walked to center stage. With a wide smile and arms waving out to the crowd, Ms. Staples began the evening with the inviting and powerfully acapella spiritual, "Wonderful Savior".


The guitarist and bandleader for the evening, Rick Holmstrom, together with 71 year-old Ms. Staples, eased themselves into the soulful lament of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Wrote a Song For Everyone" next. If there was any doubt, it was now clear that for tonight, we were all in the House of Staples! After this one-two punch of showstoppers, our host shouted out with an energetic "Good evening y'all! How about those Jets?", which was met with a loud boisterous roaring response from the audience. Without missing a beat, she then shouted " And how about those Bears!" in full hometown Chicago pride.

Then, thick bass lines began laying down a slower groove, while the drummer added a nuanced-paced shuffle for the guitar to lace itself over. The three backing vocalists began a deep choral hymn as Mavis led them all through a powerful rendition of  "Creep Along Moses", as it began to chug and exhale a slow and powerful force that was hard to resist getting swept up with.


"The Weight" followed, with each of the three backing vocalists on stage taking turns with leading the verses, culminating with Ms. Staples taking the last verse and lifting the whole place up during the last chorus. The tune found her with arms reaching for sky, clapping them over her head, and belting out the lyrics with exuberant joy. This tune, originally recorded by The Band, is one considered to be a modern traditional by now, but I have never seen anyone use this song as such an inclusive, moving, and spiritual call.

"He's a funny little guy" was how Mavis affectionately described Jeff Tweedy, who produced her new album, You Are Not Alone. After a couple of quick affectionate tales of working with Mr. Tweedy and thanking him for bringing the "young people here tonight", the title track eased into the set. It gently carved it's place into the night as a subtle moving affirmation, with the singer firmly imploring while cooly reassuring - "I wanna get it through to you".

The charging "Freedom Highway" was a declaration, as Ms. Staples laid down a heartfelt history lesson which included "Pop" Staples, the "big march in Montgomery Alabama", Dr. King's dream, and calling out that the "struggle is still alive"- only to rise herself up with an urgency as she sang "My mind is made up/ I refuse to turn around". It was a truly inspirational and riveting moment, and was matched beautifully with the powerful, surging wave of "Only The Lord Knows", Too Close / On My Way To Heaven", and We're Gonna Make It" that was brought down and flowed out over the crowd.


Following a short instrumental break, where Mavis and her sister Yvonne took a rest behind the band, but remained smiling, clapping, and moving to the music, Ms. Staples re-emerged, taking center stage, and began her sermonial pronouncement of "I Belong To The Band"- with repeated proclamations of "Hallelujahs".

"I'll Take You There" got everybody in the joint shouting, stomping, clapping, and singing to the singer's call for everybody (and she repeatedly demanded "EVERYBODY") to join in and send a glorious message loud and high. It worked- the music pumped, the floor was thumping, and with Mavis belting out "Take us there"- the crowd responded to it's leader in full force. It was an incredibly life-affirming moment from the living legend as the tune wound down.


Before too long, Ms. Staples returned for the first of two powerful tunes to close down an already stellar evening of the spiritually-stirring set. First up was "The Circle Will Be Unbroken", which she introduced with the sermonized and heartfelt refection "here's the first song Pop Staples ever taught me", followed by the energizing and propelling spiritual "Lay Down My Burdens (Down By The Riverside)".

It was an amazingly memorable evening, one that was life-affirming, inspiring, and revelatory. Ms. Staples and her band brought down the roof, and it was one of those few, high water mark instances, where I truly felt fortunate and grateful for having experienced such a remarkable encounter with someone so full of infectious spirituality and musical force. I would highly recommend to anyone that has not gotten to see Ms. Staples and her band perform live- do not pass up the opportunity if it presents itself.


On one last note, I would highly recommend her Live: Hope  At The Hideout LP. Since the show, I haven't really stopped listening to it. While not any kind of substitute for experiencing her perform live in person, it will definitely give you a glimpse into this incredible performer's ability to deliver and minister us all through her command of voice and song.

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