“Seventy-four years and I’m not tired yet!” declared Mavis Staples towards the end of this triumphant show. That’s not her age (she sailed past 74 in 2014) but the number of years since her father created the Staple Singers gospel group and she became a professional singer. During her 80-minute Union Chapel set the only clue that this one-time child star is now pushing 83 came in the brief moments when she sat down to rest and gulp water. That magnificent voice of hers is certainly not tired yet. It’s still the rich and soulful instrument that became a beacon for American civil rights during the 1960s and 70s.
So much history, so many great songs, so much love, faith and devotion all wrapped in a tiny bundle of energy with a blonde fringe. It seemed to me that the whole sold-out hall was struck by a wave of lump-in-the-throat emotion when she danced on to the stage. With her band easing into the laid-back groove of ‘If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)’ she won a standing ovation before singing a note – and deserved it, too. The hits she first sang with Roebuck “Pops” Staples and her brother and sisters (all gone now) bookended the set and were strategically placed throughout: the mighty ‘Respect Yourself’, their Talking Heads cover ‘Slippery People’, that majestic version of ‘The Weight’, the live-your-life-right lessons of ‘Are You Sure’ and ‘Touch A Hand (Make A Friend)’.
Her solo material is not so universally familiar, but these were strong songs, too. The title track of her 2017 album ‘Who Told You That’ has a killer riff showing the versatile skills of guitarist Rick Holmstrom, the leader of Staples’ band since 2007 and the man who sings the “Pops” lines in those old hits. With his lean figure, sharp features and ringing Telecaster licks, Holmstrom could be mistaken for a young Steve Cropper. He and the boss lady have a delightful rapport on stage. When she apologised for forgetting a few words he stepped up to say, no, it was him. He had played the wrong chords and put her off. This led to a brief and (possibly) created-on-the-spot blues chorus called ‘Put It On Rick’.
Ever since her brilliant Ry Cooder-produced civil rights album ‘We’ll Never Turn Back’ in 2007, Staples has kept her sound at the cutting edge of blues, rock and soul: always cool and contemporary with a swing and a swagger that demands to be danced to. At the Union Chapel, Holmstrom, bassman Greg Boaz and drummer Steve Mullagan laid down sinuous grooves that sent us slipping and sliding all over the Union Chapel’s wooden pews as we struggled to dance while sitting down. With backing singers Saundra Williams (from the Dap Kings) and Kelly Hogan (late of Neko Case’s band) filling out the sound (and enjoying impressive solo spots), the unusual lack of keyboards in a soul-gospel group was easily forgotten. Those briefly messed-up lyrics (I, for one, didn’t notice) came during ‘This Is My Country’, one of two new tracks she played from ‘Carry Me Home’, her just-released duo album with Levon Helm of the Band. This was recorded back in 2011, a year before the much-loved drummer-singer died of cancer.
The scheduled support artist was Amy Helms, Levon’s daughter, but Covid is still wreaking occasional havoc on the touring circuit and she and her band had to pull out. Staples revealed her own virus setback too, telling us at one point: “I’ve been messed around by doggone Covid… with brain fog. And I don’t need no extra brain fog. I already had it… from age!” Her delight at being back on tour constantly bubbled over. These two sold-out London shows had been twice-postponed since June 2020 and almost the first words she said to the audience, four numbers in, were: “We been trying to get back. Thank the Lord we finally made it.”
There was nothing from that Cooder helmed civil-rights-themed album, nor did we hear the family group’s powerful messages ‘Why Am I Treated So Bad’ and ‘When Will We Be Paid’. But any suggestion that Mavis Staples has mellowed were put to rest when she raised her right arm in what looked like a Black Power salute right after she sang “Take the sheet off your face, boy, it’s a brand new day” – that cleverly ambiguous Ku Klux Klan line from ‘Respect Yourself’.
Finally, the famously “borrowed” reggae intro to The Staples’ ‘I’ll Take You There’ was the cue for the Union Chapel to rise to its feet and dance along properly to one of the most joyful and uplifting songs ever given to the world. There was no encore, but none was needed. At 82, Mavis Staples is still giving more than any audience could want.
Earlier, the substitute support act was solo singer-songwriter Teddie Grossman, who recalled how he was at home in Los Angeles when he got a short-notice call offering him the gig. His gospel-infused piano style and vocal delivery reminded me of ‘Madman Across the Water’-era Elton John, but with a milder American accent than the one affected by Pinner-born Reg Dwight. The one song that grabbed my attention, called ‘Crowned’, was inspired by a conversation with Bill Withers, no less. I was not desperate to hear more when he left the stage after half an hour, but when I sought out some online tracks from his album ‘Soon Come’ he did sound more impressive with a band.