Why does Mavis Staples have to work so hard?
I must admit that this thought struck me in a moment of quiet despair as the optimistic gospel anthems pour out yet again in a context of chaos and terror, specifically this time in Sri Lanka.
How long does she need to exhort us to work harder, try harder, no time for cryin’, touch a hand, make a friend.. we’re gonna make it? Are we, really? I guess it is the underlying optimism of gospel-tinged rhythm and blues which keeps her going, keeps us all going, undaunted, no, inspired by the reality that the message is now universal, not just rooted in the African American experience. Perhaps this is progress, after all... so snap out of it, and rejoice in the repeat of 2017’s double bill menu of Mavis Staples and her smooth band, preceded by our own Americana Queen, Tami Neilson and her Hot Rockin’ Band of Rhythm.
It’s 7 o’clock sharp when Brett, Neil, Joe and Chip do their short intro before on sashays Tami, dressed in Sassafrass sequinned pink, and launches into Miss Jones, her tribute song to the late great Sharon Jones. 7 o’clock? So early? And almost everyone is here? Amazing, but of course Mavis is pushing 80, and by her own admission, is tired, even if this is more melodramatic than physical tiredness in support of her underlying messages of hope rising from despair.
Tami isn’t tired, she’s nervous, excited to be here, the first time in The Civic, remembering her first Mavis concert (apart from seeing the Staples Singers as a teenager) in this very theatre back in 2011.
I missed the Sassafrass! Tour last year, so, although the songs are by now very familiar, it’s great to hear them performed live. Miss Jones, Stay Outta My Business, Kitty Cat, A Woman’s Pain, all feature from the album, along with Walk and Holy Moses from her earlier efforts.
And some new ones: Queenie, Queenie with the band retiring leaving just drummer Joe McCallum to provide the backbeat; an ode to Ms Staples, Sister Mavis; the song from her video release earlier this year, Big Boss Mama, a very Joplinesque You Were Mine ( well, at least Brett’s guitar channelling Summertime makes it sounds so) and the mischievous version of the James Brown classic This Is A Man’s Man’s World reminding us of the power of women behind every-damn-one-of-them men. This is Sister Tami at her confident, activist best. The mother of two little boys who shrugged off the sexist criticism of her status as a performing, touring musician at the onset of her fifth decade (that’s 40 to you). Tami the leader, an inspiration to the rising cohort of fabulous female stars on New Zealand’s stage. All power to you, Tami!!
Great band, Neil (Clapton) Watson providing steel and foil to Brett Adams rocking, rockabilly baritone riffs. The ubiquitous Chip Matthews newly on bass, and Joe McCallum, rock steady on the drums. And of course, the impeccable Rikki Morris on sound...
What a night it has been already, and it’s not yet 8 o’clock!
A few minutes later, strictly on time, on comes the band, asking us if we are ready to come go with her, and there she is, a diminutive powerhouse, still preaching after nearly 70 years of making music, tired but not so, happy but not so, sad but not so, proud, yes definitely proud to be flag-bearing her family tradition.
There’s an element of routine, of slick, of the perfunctory in her performance, but we forgive her in deference to the heritage, the power of the message. She struggles to remember, if this is Tuesday, then it must be, no, not Oakland, not New Joisey, but Auckland, New Zealand. The country with the Prime Minister, yes that one (better than the one she’s got). But we forgive her in deference to the music, the presence, the power of the song.
And how amazing is the prolific output? Of course, we get the Staples staples: Come Go With Me, Respect Yourself, Let’s Do It Again, Touch A Hand, Make A Friend. The covers: Talking Heads' Slippery People and Funkadelic’s Can You Get To That.
But we also get a bunch of new songs from the forthcoming fourteenth studio album We Get By, produced by Ben Harper on Anti- Records, and 2017’s collaboration with Jeff Tweedy, If All I Was Was Black along with songs from earlier albums released in 2010 and 2016.
Mavis’ band is tight, soulful, pretty much the same band we saw two years ago. Maybe the female singer is new? But “Deacon” Donny Gerrard on shared and backing vocals is still there, steering the show, leading the claps, and Rick Holmstrom is both slick and frenetic on lead guitar. Jeff Turmes and Steve Hodges provide the rhythm and funk which drives the sound.
Mavis is amazing, and she works so, so hard. If ever we want to get a glimpse of the bygone age when African American labourers and sharecroppers (like her father, “Pops”) turned up to work on the Mississippi plantations to find a cotton-picking machine had taken over, to force them ever northwards, towards the Windy City, to give birth to the Chicago Blues, then we can go there. We can also go to Clarksdale, to Memphis, to see it and imagine.
Or we can come go see Mavis Staples and let her convey the drama, the tragedy, the history of the American Civil Rights era and have her remind us that, no matter how tired we are, how repetitive the message is, how often we might despair, the message is now universal, just as relevant as always, and we still have work to do...
Mavis Staple's setlist
- Come Go With Me (Staples Singers, 1973)
- Take Us Back (Living on A High Note, 2016)
- Slippery People (Talking Heads cover)
- Build A Bridge (If All I Was Was Black, 2017)
- Change (We Get By, 2019)
- Who Told You That (If All I Was Was Black,2017)
- Can You Get To That (Funkadelic cover)
- Anytime (We Get By, 2019)
- Respect Yourself (Staples Singers, 1972)
- Stronger (We Get By, 2019)
- We're Gonna Make It (You Are Not Alone, 2010)
- We Get By (Title track)
- Let’s Do It Again (Staples Singers, 1975 – written by Curtis Mayfield)
- Touch A Hand, Make A Friend (Staples Singers, 1973)
- No Time For Crying (If All I Was Was Black, 2017)
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Released: 10 May 2019