Mavis Staples can rely on a warm welcome in London – her live album of this year was recorded at a pair of Union Chapel gigs in 2018 – something which she alluded to tonight saying that she remembered us all from last year. Well, yes, and then some, The Roundhouse being a considerably larger venue. Staples is on something of a roll at the moment, with studio and live albums hitting the streets at a regular pace since she signed with ANTI-, meaning that she has a lot of pretty new material to draw on, including this year’s studio release ‘We Get By‘. It still means that Mavis Staples can deliver a “greatest hits” set – it’s just that it’s the greatest hits of the recent years.
Starting things off with an upbeat ‘Sometime‘ Mavis Staples got straight to her main points of the evening without any delay – change for the better, strength through solidarity and, since this is Mavis Staples at her gospel growling greatest, there’s a plea for prayer as well. Staples can get a round of applause just by saying “Yeah!” – but then her expressive voice makes every low growl or explosive affirmation seem so significant. And it is – it is uplifting and that’s something, she’d surely argue, worth having. ‘Build a Bridge‘ hit a fine groove that got the crowd moving, whilst ‘Who Told You That?‘ was a joy of buzzing guitar and finger pointing vocals
Shorn of its carefully picked harmonic introduction Stephen Stills’ ‘For What it’s Worth‘ comes out of nowhere on a rolling funky feel – it’s a song that not many of the crowd could claim to be unaware of which helps on the chorus sing-a-long, punctuated by Staples, hand lifted in a stop sign, declaiming the lyric “We gotta Stop! Hey, what’s that sound ? / Everybody look what’s going down.” It’s a timeless protest song, because it seems that in the last fifty years there’s always been “A thousand people in the street / Singing songs and carrying signs / Mostly say, hooray for our side.” This was neatly followed up with another Civil Rights classic – instantly recognisable as Donny Gerrard delivered the opening verse in his high and sweet tenor before Mavis Staples laid it right down – you want respect ? You’d better ‘Respect Yourself.’ This is just a curtain lifter for the centrepiece of the set – the Staples Singers ‘Freedom Highway‘. If anyone has any right to sing “I’ve come too far to turn back now” it’s someone who marched with Martin Luther King Jr, and got hassled and arrested on account of it. Every repetition of the phrase just dug deeper into the emotion – and when it overpowered her it led to Mavis Staples tapping Rick Holmstrom to play up on lead guitar. It was a song that shone in the set.
When the band starts on ‘Touch a Hand, Make a Friend‘ it’s a pretty sure fire indication that the end of the gig is fast approaching – and if after the band introductions – the recommendation that we should “Reach out and touch a hand, make a friend – if you can” was less enthusiastically embraced than it had been a year earlier in a more intimate setting, the sentiment was still well-received. After a brief pause, Staples returned for a final song ‘No Time for Crying‘ – again attending to the need to correct the civil rights deficit, to not accept the actions of bullies and to stay strong in thinking that separating children from their mothers as an arm of border control policy is not acceptable. Mavis Staples – bringing joy to London, and keeping us thinking right. What more could you want?