Live Review: Mavis Staples + Jon Muq, Union Chapel, London – July 3rd, 2023

The Union Chapel is a perfect venue for a Mavis Staples show. There was a fervour about her performance to which her audience (congregation?) responded accordingly. The palpable feeling that welcomed this great artist was love. Most people there could probably tell a story or two about Mavis Staples shows they had attended. From the minute she walked up to the mic bellowing, “Are you ready London?” the reply was very clearly in the affirmative. It is not often the standing ovation comes before the first song.

The band certainly played their part. First on the stage were her longtime guitarist Rick Holmstrom and bassist Gregory Boaz who, with drummer Steve Mugalian, whipped up the frenzy as backing singers Saundra Williams and Kelly Hogan sashayed into position. If Staples needed a little assistance up the steps she punched the air with decades-defying vigour and off she went straight into ‘For What It’s Worth’. Half a century on and Stephen Still’s plea remains as relevant as ever, “There’s a man with a gun over there/ Telling me I got to beware”. The first song in served as a reminder of her own commitment to the civil rights movement. The Staples Singers classic ’I’m Just Another Soldier’ reinforced the theme, “I’m just another soldier in the army of love”. From that flow of lush gospel to the tightest R&B Holmstrom and co cranked up the tempo for ‘Handwriting On The Wall’ splicing in a solo for good measure.

Already a breather was necessary, and that’s just from the pews. Staples obliged with her sincere welcome. She clearly loves this place, “Good evening y’all, all of our family is here, we’re back home to Union Chapel”. It felt like a much-anticipated visit from a favourite relative. She may be from faraway, but putting everyone at their ease it hardly seems as if she’s been away. She came “from the windy city to bring you inspiration and good vibrations” exhorting her audience, “to feel good, better than when you left home. We’re here to entertain you but you gotta entertain yourselves. So get loose, like a jar of Jell-o”. If that wasn’t clear enough, “Oh yes, get loose, unfasten your seatbelt”.

Duly loosened, another great number from The Staples Singers followed. ‘City In The Sky’ blew airily straight in from the Windy City. Holmstrom strummed and pranced around a determined Staples. Fifteen years has cemented this partnership as they vie with each other. After such energetics no-one could deny Staples a seat and sip of whatever was in her cup. From more recent solo albums came a thumping, grinding ‘Change’, a moody ‘Who Told You That’ faded into the strutting Funkadelic classic ‘Can You Get To That’. Whatever the pace or style Holmstrom bobbed and wove squeezing every last drop from his Telecaster. Equally funky was ‘Slippery People’, so much so that it took a minute to realise we had moved on to The Talking Heads.

Sandwiched among those was the mighty ‘Respect Yourself’, a version that put what many would consider The Staples Singers’ greatest to the heavier bluesy soul of latter-day Mavis Staples. Another story followed about the time when Staples played her father a recording Etta James had of the song in a club when she had filled in a gap with a word not from the original lyrics. Pops was appalled and made his daughter promise never to do likewise.

Throughout, the backing vocalists swapped leads with blending back into the songs but they stamped their impressive mark even more soundly when the setlist returned to The Staples Singers. Holmstrom had peeled off his jacket, Staples took a seat as she, Hogan and Williams exchanged a delightful call and response, “Are you sure there’s nothing you can do/ To help someone worse off than you?/ Think before you answer, are you sure?/ Are you sure?”. That and the hypnotic melody gently fading to silence left the briefest of silences before the usual thunderous applause.

Checking on her audience’s flexibility, “y’all feel alright?” Staples admitted to feeling “pretty good myself”. The rolling soul of ‘Heavy Makes You Happy’ would put a smile on anyone’s face. Again Staples sparred with Holmstrom before turning left towards Boaz then right to Hogan and Williams. In preparation for the climactic final song Staples said she would, “take you back down memory lane, back to 1971”. And so she did. ’I’ll Take You There’ was a worthy finale. All played and sang their hearts out until with, “let me lead the way” Staples made her dignified exit leaving the rest playing on before they too took their leave.

The Union Chapel was on its feet in adoration. No encore could follow that. If only around 75 minutes, this had been an intense performance. Staples is every bit as fired up as she ever was. Her commitment to music and the causes that have driven her are undimmed yet she paces herself. A sit down for a few minutes, let the band take over for a bit. After all, she will be 84 next week!

But as she said before the final number, “My family The Staple Singers have been entertaining y’all for 74 years, yes you ain’t seen the last of me, everybody ready?” We most certainly are.

We also hope we have not seen the last of support, Jon Muq either. A short set of songs about growing up in Uganda then moving to Austin where he knew no-one showed an empathy, love and determination that lay behind his charm. ‘Five Hours from Home’, ‘Run Away’ were emotionally conflicted in contrast to the joyful ‘Hello Sunshine’ and African vibe of ‘Che Che’. Definitely one to watch.

N.B. our featured image is from the last time Ms. Staples played at the Union Chapel in case you were wondering.

About Lyndon Bolton 140 Articles
Writing about americana, country, blues, folk and all stops in between
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