Mavis Staples: War Memorial Auditorium / Nashville TN / September 25, 2013

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Thinking back about my youth, I plead guilty to foolishly narrowing my musical tastes. By the time I reached my late teens, I graduated from Top Forty AM radio to the hipper, rock sounds found on the FM dial. But, for many years I just got stuck there. In doing so, I had no respect for rock’s early influences–the entire genres of Country, R&B, Gospel, and Soul. I didn’t think there was any treasure there for me to discover. Imagine my surprise when I heard The Band’s Robbie Robertson speak of his love for The Staple Singers. Following the advice of musical heroes like Robertson, I gradually allowed my musical horizons to expand.

Flashing forward to today, another Americana music legend again referred me to the Staples. This time it was Jeff Tweedy. The Wilco front man has now produced two records for the still active 74-year old Mavis Staples: 2010’s Grammy-winning, Best Americana Album You Are Not Alone and 2013’s One True Vine. I truly savored the sweet and soulful sounds of the exceptional Tweedy records. Later, I went back to discover the dynamic legacy of her family band. Both made me quite excited to see this incredible singer perform live. Sadly, her show at a sparsely-filled WMA would produce some disappointments.

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I learned of an unannounced switcheroo from a glance at the soundboard time schedule. Staples, the billed headliner, would precede The Blind Boys of Alabama and play only a one-hour set. After a few rather pedestrian songs by a local bar band, Staples took to the stage using a cane to support her new knee. Her band was a basic but tasty trio of guitar, bass, and drums supported by three back-up singers, including her younger sister Yvonne.

Right out of the box, the first few songs were horribly marred by some nasty and noisy feedback. Staples sure looked surprised when she didn’t get the answer she expected after asking the audience how things sounded.   It was soon resolved.  Then, Staple’s short time on stage was made even shorter by two mid-set band instrumentals that allowed her to sit and rest the weary knee. In addition, much performance time had too much revival-like, between-song banter and audience interplay. Finally, she took it too far when she stretched out the Staple Singers’ mega-hit “I’ll Take You There” with a seemingly never-ending audience sing-along.

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The powerful and soulful voice was there: I just wanted to hear more of it. The five Tweedy-era songs we heard sounded timely and fresh, well justifying the price of admission. Her reprise of the Staple’s cover of the classic “For What It’s Worth,” on the other hand, sounded dull, dated, and out-of-place.  (Coincidentally just a few days earlier, original Buffalo Springfield members Stephen Stills and Richie Furay reunited in town at the Ryman to perform the 1966 song for the Americana Music Awards.)

The sound and knee made for an uncontrollably tough night for Mavis Staples. Perhaps my standards are too high–the rest of the crowd seemed totally captivated by her performance.

SETLIST:

  1. Can You Get to That
  2. For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield cover recorded by The Staple Singers)
  3. I Like the Things About Me
  4. Creep Along Moses
  5. Too Close / On My Way to Heaven
  6. Freedom Highway
  7. We’re Gonna Make It
  8. (instrumental)
  9. (instrumental)
  10. Let’s Do It Again (The Staple Singers)
  11. I’ll Take You There (The Staple Singers)

BAND:

Mavis Staples—Lead Vocals
Rick Holmstrom—Guitar
Stephen Hodges—Drums
Jeff Turmes—Bass
Donny Gerrard—Lead and Backing Vocals
Chavonne Morris—Backing Vocals
Yvonne Staples– Backing Vocals

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