There’s something about seeing a legend in person. Sure, they are larger than life, but it’s more than that. Mavis Staples is a National Treasure. If Aretha Franklin is the Queen of Soul then Mavis is the Queen of Gospel.
From the beginning of her career with the Staples Singers, Mavis set herself apart with her powerful voice and electric stage presence. Her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples (who wrote most of their songs) struck up a friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960’s, and decided that the message Dr. King was preaching was the message he wanted to portray in his songs. From that moment the Staples Singers became the musical voice of the Civil Rights Movement with songs like “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)”, “Long Walk to D.C.”, and “Freedom Highway”.
In 1969 she released her first solo album “Mavis Staples”, with twelve more to follow including her latest “You Are Not Alone” which was produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Tweedy appeared with Staples at the recent “Rally To Restore Sanity” with Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert in Washington D.C.
Thursday night at The Belly Up Tavern was a double bill of legendary stature. Blues Hall of Fame inductee Charlie Musselwhite opening for Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Mavis Staples. After an impressive set, Musselwhite made way for the lady of the evening.
Mavis opened with a moving a capella version of “Wonderful Savior” featuring her sister Yvonne Staples, and singers Donny Gerrard and Vickie Randle. When the band joined in for “Wrote a Song For Everyone” and “Creep Along Moses”, the show took on the feeling of a gospel revival with the crowd singing along, hands in the air and fists pumping.
Her rendition of “The Weight” sounded as good as when she and the Staples Singers sang it in the 1978 concert movie “The Last Waltz” which celebrated the final concert of The Band (who originally performed the song written by frontman Robbie Robertson). Although the song was never a hit per se, but it remains a constant fixture on classic rock radio to this day.
Her latest single, “You Are Not Alone” (also written by Tweedy) showcases Mavis’ voice in a way that can still quiet the house, every eye and ear paying absolute attention to the angel on stage.
As she launched into “Freedom Highway”, you could imagine her marching down that highway to Washington D.C. singing at the top of her wonderful voice “Made up my mind, I won’t turn around”.
And no Mavis, we won’t turn around either.
“You Are Not Alone” is available at iTunes and record stores everywhere. Mavis Staples continues her tour with six dates in Europe before finishing the U.S. leg starting in her home city of Chicago on November 27th.