Show Review: Mavis Staples at Yoshi’s Oakland, 2/13/10

by Jason LeRoy on February 14, 2010

Mavis Staples testifying at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in October 2009 (photo by Debra Amerson)

There was nothing conventionally romantic about soul legend/civil rights icon Mavis Staples’ Valentine’s Day weekend shows at Yoshi’s Oakland. But while the fleeting whimsies of romance may have been absent, they were replaced by something much more substantive: the fiercely passionate love, devotion, and commitment with which Ms. Staples, 70, has tackled her stirring, liberating material ever since she first began recording with her family band, The Staples Singers, sixty years ago.

I attended the late show on Saturday night, and when Ms. Staples and her supremely talented band (guitarist Rick Holmstrom, drummer Stephen Hodges, bassist Jeff Turmes, and backup singers Donny Gerrard, Chavonne Morris, and sister Yvonne Staples) took the stage shortly after 10pm, there were signs that perhaps Ms. Staples was a bit worn out from her earlier show. Understandable! The woman is 70 year old, for crying out loud. What kind of sadist is forcing her into two shows a night, anyway? Then, when she opened her mouth to unleash that famously volcanic growl of hers, it was just a tiny bit hoarse. At first.

But only for about 30 seconds. Once she’d gotten through the first few bars of opener “Down in Mississippi,” from her Ry Cooder-produced masterpiece We’ll Never Turn Back, Ms. Staples found her molten center and remained there for the remainder of the cathartic 70-minute set.

It took the audience even longer to warm up, unfortunately. Since Ms. Staples’ musical, spiritual, and political roots (not that she sees a distinction between the three) are in the black church, her flagging energy could have benefited from a more vocal and affirmative response from the crowd during her many shout-outs. But we were too busy being old/white/tired to holler back, so it took a while for her to “take us there” (wink!). But once we got there, we never wanted to leave.

Ms. Staples pulled her material primarily from We’ll Never Turn Back, with a handful of classics thrown in for good measure. All of the songs can be found on her excellent concert album, Live: Hope At The Hideout (2008). Much to my chagrin, she did not sing the theme song from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. But I guess it was still an okay show.

Hearing that era-defining voice in person was a great and profound  thrill. Age may have deepened it a tiny bit, but it has lost none of its soul-shaking power. When Ms. Staples would reach deep within herself and produce one of her trademark raspy howls, she would practically shake the rafters. And when she punctuated the songs with stories about traveling and performing with Martin Luther King, Jr., at civil rights marches in the late ’50s and early ’60s, it grounded the material with the gravity of history.

The most musically surprising aspect of the show is that it wasn’t really a soul show in the traditional sense. Anyone expecting a horn section was bitterly disappointed. Instead, Ms. Staples and her band have perfected this very funky, dirty rock-n-soul sound, which expertly complements Staples’ voice while keeping the message relevant and immediate, rather than receding into the quaintness (or, more recently, trendiness) of old-school soul.

Actually, no. That wasn’t the most musically surprising aspect of the show. That actually came about six songs into the set. After wrapping up the devastating “Waiting For My Child To Come Home” (which she sang mostly without even using her microphone — this felt nothing less than revolutionary in an age where singers rarely venture onto a stage without a backing track), Ms. Staples began introducing her “baby sister” to sing.

I assumed she meant one of her backup singers, which included her sister Yvonne. “You know her from… Lord, what’s that song she sang?” Staples said laughingly to her singers. I was like, “Oh, her sister had a hit single back in the day? That’s nice—”

“MISS BONNIE RAITT!” Staples shouted. My stomach fell out of my butt.

And just like that, in a flash of red-dyed hair, tight jeans, and a cowboy hat, Bonnie Raitt walked on stage and joined Mavis Staples. To sing “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Right in front of me. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.

The show was everything a Mavis Staples concert should be: powerful, uplifting, liberating, inspiring. Hers was the defining singing voice of the civil rights movement, and as she pointedly said after “Freedom Highway,” “I am still walking on that highway, just like I’ve been doing all these years, and will continue doing until Dr. King’s dream of peace has become a reality.”

This led to some light murmuring in the crowd, since, when combined with an earlier mid-song aside in which Ms. Staples said, “I think I voted for the right man,” her numerous pleas for peace throughout the evening, and her conspicuous absence at the recent Celebration of Music from the Civil Rights Movement (which should have just been called “Mavis Staples Night”) at the White House, could be an indication that Ms. Staples is displeased by President Obama’s ongoing waging of wars in the Middle East.

After all, this is a woman who marched every step of the way with Dr. King while he successfully waged a different kind of war with pacifism and nonviolent resistance. Perhaps we’d all be better off if we listened to Mavis Staples, because she has some stories to tell us, and they’re stories from which we’d all benefit from listening.

Setlist:

Down in Mississippi

This Little Light

On My Way

Wade In The Water

Waiting For My Child To Come Home

Will The Circle Be Unbroken

Why Am I Treated So Bad

[instrumental]

Freedom Highway

I’ll Take You There

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