As she plans her 80th birthday blowout at the Apollo, soul and gospel icon Mavis Staples celebrated the last year of her seventies in London, documented on this beguiling new live album
Artist: Mavis Staples
Recording: Live in London
Label: Anti- ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
The mighty voice of Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, R&B legend and Civil Rights Movement icon Mavis Staples still represents peace in the eye of society’s most troubling storms, as captured last July at her 79th birthday celebration in London.
While it’s tempting to get sidetracked by praise of Staples’ folk revival contributions with the Staples Singers or other cultural touchstones from her lengthy career, it’s just as rewarding to delve into her more recent recordings. The aptly-titled birthday album Live in London proves this by highlighting her fantastic work with Jeff Tweedy and other modern songwriters.
Renditions of fellow veteran Ben Harper’s “Love and Trust” and Benjamin Booker’s beaming “Take Us Back” set a positive tone for an album that champions the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Not even a cover of the Talking Heads’ cynical “Slippery People” waters down the evangelistic zeal of Staples’ secular sermon.
VIDEO: “Slippery People” (Live) Mavis Staples
Only a version of her legendary father “Pops” Staples’ “What You Gonna Do” carries any sort of blatant Christian message. Still, Staples’ talents as a gospel performer shine through. For whatever reason, singers of hymns and spiritual songs, from Sam Cooke to Elvis Presley, never fully shed the conviction in their voices after leaving the choir loft for the popular music spotlight. As this album proves, Staples can even make the carnal imaginings of George Clinton (“Can You Get to That”) and Curtis Mayfield (“Let’s Do It Again”) back her message of acceptance and love.
Other tracks include writes or co-writes by Tweedy, the producer of three of the last four Staples solo albums. Think of him as the Jack White to Staples’ Loretta Lynn. Newer, collaborative material gets precedent over such predictable choices as “I’ll Take You There”—the timeless Staples Singers classic she performed with Chris Stapleton, Maren Morris and others at the 2018 Country Music Association (CMA) awards. Intentional or not, the track listing should point satisfied listeners to any Staples releases by Anti- they might’ve overlooked.
The album ends with a stirring revisiting of one of the Staples Singers’ classic racial equality anthems, “Touch a Hand (Make a Friend).” After delivering obligatory band introductions in the most soulful way possible, she serves as emcee for what’s as much a rally for human decency as it’s a song.
Although Staples sings timeless messages, it’s impossible to separate pretty much any art released in 2019 from contemporary society. Fifty years ago, Staples and her family encouraged listeners to keep the faith amid war, protest and high-profile assassinations. As this album proves, time and circumstance haven’t quenched Staples’ effectiveness as a credible and relevant voice of protest in our politically-polarizing world.
VIDEO: “Touch a Hand” (Live) Mavis Staples