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Copyright Nick Morgan and crew

Concert Review by Nick Morgan


The Barbican, London, April 15th 2008
Mavis Staples Few singers can have a greater right to trade off the memory of Dr Martin Luther King (whose name, sadly, is often taken in vain by the unworthy) than Mavis Staples, the voice behind the sixties gospel-turned-soul band, the Staples Singers. They did, after all, provide the soundtrack for the civil rights movement in the United States in the years preceding and immediately after Dr King’s assassination in Memphis one April day forty years ago. And having joined Stax records as it tried to redefine itself as the label of the Black Power movement, they went on to become Number 1 sellers.
Pop Staples, the Mississippi-born patriarch of the band who had been touched by the blues of the likes of Charley Patton as a child ("I was a Christian man. I figured blues wasn't the right field for me”) was an intimate of the Doctor. After first hearing him speak in 1963 he told his children (also his band) "If he can preach it, we can sing it.". And they did. This is the spirit that’s conjured up in Ms Staples’ occasionally masterly 2007 album We’ll Never Turn Back, produced by and featuring Ry Cooder, along with son Joachim, drumming giant Jim Keltner and the Ladysmith Black Mambazo choir. And its success, coupled with the anniversary of Dr King’s murder, makes it a timely opportunity to tour.
I think they’re still selling tickets, but the Barbican is almost full, and the evening is kicked off with incredible energy by Jhelisa Anderson and her band, featuring young British pianist Robert Mitchell. I would hesitate to find an easy comparison for her eclectic style – I thought most of Cassandra Wilson, but only just – but she gave as powerful a start to a gig as I can recall for a long time. Maybe that’s because she knew what was coming. You could feel the anticipation in the hall melt away when the MC announced “Well, we nearly cancelled tonight’s show due to Mavis Staples’ illness, but she insisted on playing”. Ms Staples was suffering from a bad throat infection, and was clearly very, very unwell. Her band looked on anxiously through the night, and somewhat disapprovingly, and it became clear from the sheepish grins that the tale of her throwing a fit when they tried to lock her in the hotel bedroom was not too far from the truth. And it’s an interesting dilemma – we’ve paid our quids to see a show, so should we be given less than full value? And should Ms Staples be risking her health (and voice) further by performing when she’s ill?
Well the dice were thrown and we all had to make the best of it. Ms Staples’ voice was firing for the most part at about thirty per cent (although the fact that she did manage “R E S P E” before choking on the remaining two letters in ‘Respect yourself’ might, from a purely statistical perspective, have put her voice on around seventy per cent). But her spirit and soul were peaking at around one hundred and eighty, and there wasn’t even a cynic like me in the house who didn’t melt just a little bit when she explained “I had to come out tonight, for you. You’re my people. You’re my people’. After which she could really do no wrong. Mavis Staples
So she coughed and spluttered her way through new songs like ‘’Eyes on the prize’, and ‘Down in Mississippi’ (born in Chicago her childhood was divided between the city and the Delta), and classics like Steven Still’s ‘For what it’s worth’, ‘The weight’ (the Staples Singers performed with the Band for The Last Waltz), ‘Why (am I treated so bad)’, ‘Freedom’s Highway’, and their number one hit ‘I’ll take you there’. That ended the show with a standing ovation that brought Ms Staples to tears. Surprisingly she returned for ‘We shall not be moved’ (more tears, but those could have been caused by the Barbican’s terrible singing) and finally from the new album ‘Turn me around’.
It was a show of great spirit, but would not have been pulled off but for the tight band behind her (her backing singers, including sister Yvonne looked frankly unimpressed by the whole thing) led by guitarist Rick Holmstrom, who, as they say, stepped up to the plate to try and fill some of the gaps left by Ms Staples’ ailing voice.
Holmstrom He’s a fantastic rootsy and gutsy blues player with echoes from Ry Cooder to Marc Ribot, but with a sound all of his own.With drummer (and Tom Waits veteran) Stephen Hodges and bassist Jeff Turmes (who both play on Holmstrom’s most recent and highly-recommended album Late in the Night) they carried the night, taking their own ten-minute spot (whilst the Misses Staples and Co had a sit down and ‘bit of a rest’ at the back of the stage) to play ‘Tutweiler’ from Holmstrom’s album. And between every song it was Holmstrom who talked to Ms Staples, asked her if she could carry on, and suggested songs she might like to try.
An altogether impressive performance that made a potentially disastrous evening most enjoyable. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate)

Kate's gig photo album Kate's photographs

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