Live In London
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Even in the rarified world of living legends, Mavis Staples is unique. After all, how many veteran artists have been performing for seventy years? And are still doing nearly 200 one-nighters? Not even Willie Nelson can match that. But more impressive is that Staples is arguably doing some of her best work, especially in the past decade.
Since she is an interpreter not a songwriter, Staples relies on the kindness of strangers to provide material. And artists as diverse as Prince, Nick Cave, Ben Harper and of course Jeff Tweedy, who has produced her recent spate of discs, have been more than happy to oblige, delivering tunes specifically written for her voice and inclusive sensibilities. After the recent loss of longtime friend Aretha Franklin, it’s down to Mavis to keep the soul/gospel flame burning, something she’s been adept at for decades.
Staples not only released a live album a decade ago, but 2017’s terrific star-studded tribute–in which she participated– covered career highlights of her extensive history. This hour long set cherry picks recent, lesser known songs with an emphasis on her Tweedy and M. Ward produced work, a smart move since there are enough versions of “Respect Yourself” already out there. Tunes such as the lovely ballad “Dedicated” and the swampy Harper penned “Love and Trust” get sizzling concert renditions. She digs way back to revive a ‘60s Pops Staples composition with a robust take on the gospel/civil rights gem “What You Gonna Do” and revisits one of the few non-gospel Staples Singers’ songs with a vibrant version of Curtis Mayfield’s “Let’s Do It Again.” Mavis also brings the church to secular fare such as Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” and gets even funkier when sliding into the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.”
Staples, who at 79 sounds as gutsy and gravelly as ever, ramps up these songs for the live setting, bringing her jubilant persona that connects not just with the concert audience but also on disc. You can almost see her strutting around the stage, raising her arms like a fire and brimstone preacher on Little Milton’s “We’re Gonna Make It” and the tough, gutsy, inclusive closing “make a friend if you can” lyrics of “Touch a Hand.” As producer, Staples could have left the crowd singing “Happy Birthday” to her on the cutting room floor and at just under an hour, this runs short.
Regardless, it remains an electric, inspired show thanks to an exceedingly talented band led by guitarist Rick Holmstrom, and of course Staples’ larger than life voice, vitality and sheer personality. Pushing 80, she seems unstoppable.