Live and Local: Mavis Staples at the Tobin Center

click to enlarge Mavis Staples, now 75. - COURTESY
Mavis Staples, now 75.

The bubbly chanteuse of the American spirit – the real deal, not some white-washed idea of empire and power – made her way onto the Tobin stage with a little help from her bandmates. Although 76, Mavis Staples ripped through a set, and her vocal cords, for over an hour on Tuesday night. She even shuffled across the stage with the speed of a woman half her age.

"If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)" was the first number the five-piece band, consisting of bass, drums, guitar and two backup singers, launched into. The sound was a little thin, particularly for anyone familiar with the classic track. Staples' vocals were high up in the mix, her microphone hissing every so often. It would not be turned down throughout the set and was only repaired by my companion and me taking some closer seats at the encore, The Band's "The Weight."

Secondly, Staples' group showcased "Take Us Back," the single off of Livin' on a High Note, the February release from the 76-year-old singer whose skill and musical range could never be contained in the single designation of "gospel music," as if all of the best music isn't some form of gospel music. 

Next was an inspired version of the Talking Heads' "Slippery People," which warranted laughter form the audience as Staples sang, "Fallin' on your face, you must be havin' fun." The funkiness of the trio of instrumentalists stressing the bouncy soul feel of the Heads' original version.

Staples gave a shout out to Talking Heads frontman David Byrne and launched into a sermon/pep talk on everybody having some fun. The group then went right into "Respect Yourself," which received knowing applause from the audience. Staples then told a story on Roebuck "Pops" Staples, who, as the last of fourteen children was named Roebuck because of the presence of a Sears-Roebuck catalog in the family's house, and a Blackstone Ranger regaling him with how he once looked for folks to rob and due to the positivity of the Pops penned "Respect Yourself" now looks to help others. "If you don't respect yourself, ain't nobody gonna give a good cahoot."

"Freedom Highway" was next, followed by another fascinating history lesson on Pops Staples writing "I Won't Turn Around" for "the big march" from Montgomery to Selma. The energy was palpable among the congregated concertgoers. Staples exclaimed that she is a "soldier in the army of love" and preached about how good it feels when the spirit hits you. Never mentioning a specific deity, Staples allowed for the audience to interpret the energy in the room to what moves their spirit. I felt the potency of real, live rock 'n' roll stir mine.

Next was "Love And Trust," a tune off of Livin' On a High Note that sounded like the place Bob Dylan, Staples' 2016 summer touring partner, goes to write his more recent gospel-influenced material. 

"Can You Get to That" from 2013's One true Vine, an exceptional album, was next. Followed by "Dedicated," the musical highlight of the night as the ensemble hushed the whole audience with their gentle, calm rendition. It was gorgeous. "All bets are off," sang Staples. Next was a slow, ambling tune that utilized a shuffle reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's "Streets of Philadelphia."

The last three tunes were powerhouses; Buffalo Springfield's "For What it's Worth," more commonly known as "Stop, what's that sound?" based on the inquiry in the hook and "I Know a Place" finished the initial set. Mavis returned once more to a standing ovation and the group ended the evening with "The Weight."

Despite some sound issues, the positivity and jubilation of a crowd of folks gathered to see one of the living legends of not just song but American history, a champion of human rights and peace, was uplifting and had me walking on air as I exited the Tobin.

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