AMERICAN blues, soul and gospel singer Mavis Staples will be 84 on July 10, but being an octogenarian hasn’t quelled her zest for performing live one scintilla. Boy does her voice still pack an almighty punch. Boy does she command a stage.
On Monday and Tuesday July 3 and 4, Mavis was in London to perform at the magnificent Union Chapel in Highbury. Part of a summer tour that will take her across Europe, the United States and Canada.
With the Union Chapel’s jaw-dropping wheel window – each petal featuring a musical instrument from the Old Testament – providing a colourful backdrop, she proceeded to give the sell-out audience a flavour of her extensive musical book that stretches back to the 1950s. They simultaneously loved it and idolised her. Thunderous applause followed each song. Thunderclaps inside, rain outside.
Mavis’s career blossomed in the 1950s as part of the Staple Singers (God’s greatest hit-makers) before she went on to enjoy great success as a solo artist. Sadly, her father Pops and siblings who sang in the Staple Singers band are no more.
Although Mavis occasionally now sits down in between songs – and draws on wonderful support from two ear-catching backing vocalists (Kelly Hogan and Saundra Williams) and guitarist Rick Holmstrom – she still knows how to captivate an audience.
She’s witty, confirming on July 4 her love of London, the Union Chapel and the tennis at Wimbledon (she has a bit of thing, she admits, about Spanish player Carlos Alcaraz). ‘You all look so beautiful,’ she told the audience. Yes, she knows how to flatter too.
Mavis is still driven by a mix of faith and social justice that is imprinted in her DNA. It underpins her music and made the Staple Singers synonymous with the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s. And, most importantly of all, she commands an audience.
At times, her extraordinarily powerful voice boomed like a bass drum, reaching every corner of the vast Union Chapel, shifting cobwebs that had taken up long-term tenancy rights in the chapel’s high ceiling. A sonic boom a la Concorde. It was almost as if we were witnessing a miracle.
On Tuesday, her 15-song set took us from 1965 (Are You Sure) where the lyrics were very much of the time – but are as apt today.
‘Are you sure there’s nothing you can do
To help someone worse off than you?
Think before you answer, are you sure?
Are you sure?’
Mavis them transported us through the music of the Staple Singers (the likes of You’re Ready, City In The Sky, Respect Yourself) and some of her solo numbers (Take Us Back, Brothers And Sisters, Eyes On The Prize and Change). There was also a rather scintillating cover of Talking Heads’ Slippery People. At times, Holgan and Williams took the lead before Mavis got up from her seat and took over. Sumptuous stuff.
‘I’m going dancing after the show,’ she exclaimed after the tub-thumping Change – infused with the magic of Holmstrom’s guitar. Maybe she did hit the dancefloor because there was no encore, no wave or a goodbye. She just disappeared into the Union Chapel’s ether, taking her band with her (Steve Mugalian on drums and Greg Boaz completing the band’s members).
Not that the audience, a sell-out, were too disappointed. They had just witnessed a musical giant. A true great.
Let’s hope that at some stage in the near future, she leaves her home in the windy city of Chicago, crosses the Atlantic and graces us with her presence and music again. Maybe during Wimbledon 2024. Summer Tour, 2024.
Mavis Staples is a musical hurricane, a human tornado. See her once and you’ll want more. She’s special. Very special.