Mavis Staples is a living legend – recent Americana Grammy winner, Jeff Tweedy collaborator, mainstay of STAX Records, civil rights activist, the list goes on. And thankfully a legend that has not been diminished by time. Mere seconds into ‘If you’re ready (come go with me)’ and the pleasure levels in The Union Chapel had already gone from vibrantly anticipatory to overflowing with ecstasy. It’s one thing to have one of the most recognisable voices in recorded music, it’s quite another to be gently swaying in front of a sold out crowd in an increasingly hot Union Chapel whilst unleashing that voice that covers wide ranges, and burbles delightfully in the lower registers. Her band back this up with such a rich sound that it was something of a surprise to realise that it was just a three piece – Stephen Hodges on drums, Jeff Turmes on bass and lead guitar Rick Holmstrom , plus two supporting singers (Vicky Randle and Donny Gerrard). And yet there was a huge soulful groove reverberating in the Union chapel’s fine acoustics.
Mavis Staples covered a variety of styles across the evening, acknowledging the influence of the modern blues sound that came out of Chicago there’s a slow and bluesy ‘What you gonna do?‘ which is a challenge to stand up and do right before “death creeps in your room“. David Byrne’s ‘Slippery People‘ is a perfect fit for an uptempo soulful rocker whilst Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Let’s Do It Again‘ is not the subtlest of songs, but Mavis Staples squeezes out every ounce of meaning, grooving with Rick Holmstrom in a duel of vocal versus guitar. One song that perhaps wasn’t on the set list was the audience led ‘Happy Birthday‘ which interrupts some playful stage banter – what a way to celebrate a birthday, because this really was turning into some party. There was that intimacy the Union Chapel can inspire – as the daylight fades and the stage pulls the audience in closer. On stage there was the joyful sight of a band totally in tune with each other, when ‘We’re going to make it‘ bursts loose with an extended guitar break Mavis Staples can be seen slapping Holmstrom’s back to encourage him to greater exertions.
As well as several Staple singers classics there’s a generous helping from the more recent solo albumn, and naturally enough the latest Jeff Tweedy helmed release ‘If all I was was Black‘ is to the fore. It is an album with plenty of songs of activism and striving for equality – music that seems particularly timely these days. ‘Little Bit‘ poses uncomfortable questions that really should have been answered years ago. Over a rumbling bass Mavis Staples queries what’s really going on “poor kid they caught him without his licence / that ain’t why they shot him / they said he was fighting“. As the anger at the injustice ramps up the drums start going off, exploding like machine gun bullets – rat-tat-tat. It’s a strong song on the album – live it’s devastating in its power. The main set closer was an inspired ‘No Time For Crying‘ which featured a sweet and spikey guitar solo which acted as perfect foil to Turmes’ delicious bass lines. In a set that had already featured a few overtly political statements this would produce the clearest yet. Part way through the song, having exhorted the audience that “we have work to do” Mavis Staples seemingly started to extemporise on the traditional ‘Motherless Children‘, before turning on the heat: “Motherless Children – we’ve got children snatched from their mothers“. She’d like to tell the man in the “big house” what she thinks of this – before reflecting that “he’s not a man, he’s a child“. It has the audience up on their feet, and they stay there to cheer the band back to the stage and then – and in the Union Chapel this is quite unusual – they remain on their feet for the whole encore.
The two song encore started with a reprise of ‘Little Bit‘ – the concert was being recorded, so maybe the band wasn’t happy with the first go-around. This take was as superb as the first time, and was followed up with an extended ‘Touch a hand, make a friend‘ which had Mavis Staples glad-handing the front rows as she sang “Reach out – touch a hand / make a friend – if you can” , whilst spontaneous hand shaking also went around the venue. If the deal before us this evening was to, at least for five minutes, accept a positive vibe and reject the negativity which tries to pull people apart and drive wedges between those who should be making common cause then let it be said that the deal was majestically signed, sealed, and delivered.
If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)
Can You Get to That
Let’s Do It Again
Happy Birthday to Mavis
Build a Bridge
Who Told You That
What You Gonna Do?
Take Us Back
Far Celestial Shore
We’re Gonna Make It
Love And Trust
No Time for Crying
Touch a Hand, Make a Friend
And here’s some footage of Mavis Staples singing for a real president.