What better way to see Mavis Staples than to be sat on a pew in a chapel, with the last of the evening sun shining through stained glass windows, on her 75th birthday? It’s an honour to see her any place and time, but this always promised to be something special.
The moment Mavis steps on stage, waving with both hands, a huge smile on the kindest face, she has the audience enchanted. “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” eases her voice in gently but “For What It’s Worth” takes on gravitas and a depth of meaning barely noticeable in Buffalo Springfield’s original. But that’s always been Mavis’s strength, her power to interpret a song, to make the listener hear the message clearly. Nowhere is this more evident than during “The Weight”. Her backing singers – including big sister Yvonne (the recipient of gentle ribbing “Who’s this lady? I think she’s a groupie”) – and members of her crack three piece band take turns on the early verses before Mavis grabs the reigns. Not one to take the easy option, to turn back, she puts everything into the song. “Put the load, put the load, put the load, put the load, put the load on me!” she cries repeatedly. Hairs on the back of the neck stuff. She leaves little room for doubt she could carry anything on those shoulders. It’s an incredible, soul-stirring delivery, which brings the entire congregation to its feet.
The setting and occasion make it an emotionally charged evening. After a rousing rendition of “Freedom Highway”, Mavis explains how her father Pops wrote the song for the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery. “I was there,” she tells us, “and I’m still here.” It brings a lump to the throat, but that’s nothing compared to when Mavis reflects how wonderful it is spend her birthday in a beautiful church with Pops talking to the Elders and looking down proudly on his baby girl. Mavis’s bottom lip isn’t the only one to quiver. As the audience breaks into an impromptu chorus of Happy Birthday, Mavis discreetly wipes away a tear before merrily singing the song herself.
But the overriding emotion throughout is of joy. Mavis is huge fun with an infectious chuckle, sparring musically with fantastic rootsy guitarist Rick Holmstrom, and making wisecracks and chatting easily to all who shout out. This is the third time I’ve seen Mavis perform in recent years and her set is constantly changing. “Respect Yourself” of course remains, as does the Curtis Mayfield penned “Let’s Do It Again” but “I Like The Things About Me” and a super-sensitive and moving “You’re Not Alone” from recent albums are a sign of striding onward, whilst a version of the Talking Heads “Slippery People” is so new it requires the lyrics brought out on a music stand to act as a memory jogger; not that Mavis can see it straight away in the light. “I thought it was a couple of racoons!”
When the singers take a breather to let the band play a few instrumental numbers, Mavis and Yvonne take a seat at the back of the stage, and instead of using this time to rest, Mavis continues to excitedly pump her arms and wave her towel, caught up in the music.
The big finale is “I’ll Take You There” which requires some audience participation. “We’ve been taking you there for 64 years,” Mavis reminds us, “you can take us there for one minute.” How could anyone refuse? Reluctantly Mavis Staples leaves the stage to a thunderous ovation. It’s been an extraordinary, uplifting and life-affirming evening.