Mavis Staples puts the ’soul’ in soul music
Mavis Staples is the real deal. Witness to and participant in Martin Luther King Jr.’s march for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., 50 years ago, she is still very much—as she said herself last Friday evening in Chico—“a soldier in the Army of Love.” With that emphatically stated commitment to keep “fightin’ for love, fightin’ for hope, fightin’ for peace” as the motivating force behind her artistry, Staples continued her musical family’s tradition of conveying positive aspirations for civil rights and individual spirituality to a welcoming and receptive crowd.
A diminutive dynamo, the 75-year-old led her three-piece band, supplemented by backup singers Donny Gerrard and Vicki “Squeaky” Randle, through an hour and a half of jubilant, soul-stirring songs that had the most exuberant members of the audience literally dancing in the outside aisle. And what a band! Guitarist Rick Holmstrom is a master of soulful swamp-boogie licks, and his cohorts, bassist Jeff Turmes and drummer Stephen Hodges, provided an immaculate, dynamically nuanced, and thoroughly rockin’ foundation for Staples’ high-energy soul songs.
Kicking the show off with a booty-shaking rendition of The Staples Singers 1973 classic “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” Staples and her band then moved seamlessly through a set that ranged from the lascivious (“Let’s Do It Again”) to the spiritually impassioned (“You Are Not Alone,” the title track from her Grammy-winning 2010 collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy). And between songs the singer exuded a playfulness and good humor that kept her audience charmed and engaged throughout.
Acknowledging that her performance was happening on the day after King’s birthday, Staples delivered the civil-rights-era hits “Respect Yourself” and “Freedom Highway” with a joyous reverence that kept her predominantly white audience receptive to the history she was testifying about.
Midway through the concert Staples left the stage to a standing ovation, graciously allowing her band the opportunity to show off their instrumental chops, which they did by shifting bassist Turmes to slide guitar for a gentle improvisation evocative of the delta blues tradition. Then guitarist Holmstrom took the lead for a deep, funky jam that explored and exploited the sonic dynamics of the auditorium setting from nearly unamplified quietness to a fully rocking guitar onslaught that also wittily incorporated the melody from the old spiritual song “Down by the Riverside.”
With the audience lifted by this musical interlude, Staples returned to the stage to introduce the players, then took over the mic for a chatty buildup to a slinky, slippery rendition of the 1975 hit “Let’s Do It Again,” which she punctuated with moaned exhortations and finished by acknowledging the contribution of Curtis Mayfield to the song’s creation.
And then it was time to bring out the biggest hit and most familiar song of the evening, a fabulous extended version of “I’ll Take You There” that gave Staples plenty of room to unleash her powerhouse voice, joke with the band and her back-up singers, and lead the audience in a sing-along of the song’s title and refrain. By the time the song ended pretty much everyone in the house was on their feet, clapping, singing along, and swaying to the beat as Staples exited the stage and the band hit a crescendo of power-trio soul.
The encore number, an uptempo interpretation of “We’re Marching on to Freedom Land,” dug deep into the gospel and civil-rights-promoting tradition that The Staples Singers pioneered beginning in the 1950s, and by its finale the feeling of celebratory collaboration among the band, the singer and the audience was a palpable force that left us all feeling like we’d just experienced a true revival of our spirits.