Review by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass.) – Mavis Staples took the big crowd at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center on Sunday night on a winding road, making stops at Selma and Montgomery and Washington D.C., at Woodstock and Winterland in San Francisco, at Soul Train and Newport Folk and Jazz, at MASS MoCA’s Solid Sound (where she debuted her collaboration with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, several fruits of which she plucked at the Mahaiwe), and, of course, to church, where her family’s music was always rooted.
Such is the historical and musical breadth and depth of Staples, as a solo artist and with her family group, the Staples Singers (and her solo career is really just an extension of the family group, and her ensemble includes her sister, Yvonne Staples).
At 72 years old, and having been performing since she was a young girl (some reports say as young as 10 years old), Staples commanded the stage and musical focus with ease and comfort. Her group’s show was precision-edged, thematically patterned, and paced to maximize the emotional impact of Staples’s mere presence.
Where Staples may have lacked musical and vocal punch she more than compensated with her dignity and sass. While she lacked no expressiveness in her delivery, she was hindered by a lack of breath and color in her voice, and had to rely mostly on a talk-rasp to put forth her mix of spirituals, protest numbers, indie-folk tunes and R&B shouters.
Highlights of the concert included the Jeff Tweedy-penned title track to her most recent album, You Are Not Alone. The song was a dark, moody, love song set in a minor-key country-rock shuffle arrangement; it’s one of the best songs Tweedy has ever written, and likely to become a modern-day standard once it is picked up by other artists and recorded.
A version of The Band’s “The Weight” was patterned almost note-for-note after the Staples Singers’ famous version appended to the Band’s concert film, The Last Waltz. While the Stapleses were not at the legendary farewell concert, they were deemed essential enough musically and historically for Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson to bring them onto a soundstage to record them singing this signature tune, and as performed at the Mahaiwe, vocal and instrumental parts were shared by her ensemble in the same manner as the tune was arranged in the movie.
In between game attempts to acknowledge the hometown venue – she got the name “Mahaiwe” perfect upon first try, but as the concert progressed she had greater difficulty pronouncing the name, although it was all in good fun – Staples peppered her show with reminiscences of Martin Luther King Jr. — the Staples Singers were for a time a kind of house choir for King, warming up crowds for him before his speeches across the nation – and her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, the patriarch of the Staples Singers and a good friend of King’s.
Staples followed in that tradition and alluded to contemporary politics, pinning well-worn folk protest songs – most given updated, funky arrangements – to today’s struggles. “They’re mixing up the Kool-Aid and passing it off as tea,” she said at one point. It was an apt statement, even if she was preaching to the choir, so to speak.
Instead of an intermission, Mavis and Yvonne Staples took seats at the rear of the stage and enjoyed listening to an instrumental segment performed by the trio of guitarist Rich Holmstrom, bassist Jeff Turmes, and drummer Stephen Hodges. The group was serviceable – Holmstrom stood out as a versatile guitarist seemingly able to mimic any style needed, even Robbie Robertson’s patented guitar licks – and bassist Turmes actually shone better on a slide guitar solo during this segment.
Staples brought the show to a close with the rousing contemporary spiritual, “I Belong to the Band,” from You Are Not Alone, and the Staples Singers’ 1972 (she got the year wrong) number-one hit, “I’ll Take You There,” really just an instrumental groove but one that she turned into a welcome opportunity for audience call-and-response.
A consummate pro, Mavis Staples said goodnight, and with no encore forthcoming, left the audience wanting more, as it should be.