Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Blues Hall of Fame inductee, Mavis Staples has had a remarkable career. She sang with her family band which moved from their church roots in the 50s to the vanguard of the Civil Rights movement in the 60s, before becoming a commercially successful R&B group in the 70s. Turning solo, Mavis recorded with Prince and in the last twelve years or so, has re-invented herself as a rootsy, bluesy, Americana artist, with a heavy dose of gospel. Her latest album, If All I Was Was Black addresses the broken heart of today’s America, suggesting that, despite the racism, violence and lying, redemption is possible. Mavis Staples wants to “Bring us all together as a people – that’s what I hope to do. You can’t stop me. You can’t break me. I’m too loving,” she says. “These songs are going to change the world.”
Down at the Crossroads caught her show in Union Chapel, London. Here’s what we learned:
- Mavis Staples is a lovely person. That’s it. No qualifications. She loves her band, she loves performing and she loves her audience. And it showed from the moment she breezed onto the stage to warm applause and cheering at Union Chapel.
- Union Chapel is a wonderful concert venue in north London. It’s a working church which hosts gigs by major artists and recording sessions, and has fantastic acoustics. Nobody is very far from the artist which gives the whole things a wonderful, intimate feeling. You can sign up for dinner before a gig and so get in early to nab your seat – and contribute to the church’s homeless ministry by so doing.
- Mavis’s first song set the stage for the rest of her set – she sang about “love and peace,” and invited the audience to “take my hand.” “I got people who love me,” she sang, in that unmistakable voice which can rasp, croon, scat or belt it out, as the need may be. You begin to feel the love, forgetting for a while Trump, Brexit and all the other stuff that has been annoying you. We ended up, most of us strangers, holding each other’s hands and beaming like children.
- Love and peace for sure – but also, she said, she was there to bring us some “joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations.” And that she did for about 75 glorious minutes (too short, Mavis, but then you have just turned 79, sorry for bringing that up!).
- And the joy and inspiration clearly comes from Mavis’s Christian faith – she unabashedly gave us the old blues song, Death Comes Creeping (covered by a host of artists, including Mance Lipscomb, Fred McDowell and Bob Dylan) – asking “whatcha gonna do when death comes creeping at your door?” Followed up by Far Celestial Shore, with its “jubilation, joy and exaltation when I see my lord.”
- That faith is no other-worldly faith, but one that is driving for change here and now. She talked about working for justice in the 1960s, inspired by Rev Martin Luther King Jr., and about needing to continue that work, especially at the moment. “I’m thinking about going up to that White House,” she said, to the biggest cheer of the evening. Go for it Mavis!
- Her five-piece band was everything you’d expect from long-time collaborators. Guitarist Rick Holmstrom treated us to a wonderful virtuosic display in a variety of styles, rewarded along the way by a fist bump from Mavis, and singers Donny Gerrard and Vicki Randel rounded out the sound, allowing Mavis to let her vocals soar with freedom.
A glorious, inspirational evening – keep going, Mavis, we love you!