“We’ve come all the way from Chicago, to bring you some joy, some happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations!” declared Mavis Staples three songs in to her performance at the Clapham Grand last Tuesday. In those few words Mavis perfectly encapsulates what her gigs are all about: joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations turned up to eleven.
I don’t think I’ve ever beamed from ear to ear through a gig so much. Mavis is a remarkable woman, a little bundle of infectious energy, and the warmth radiating from her expressive face, cackling laugh and sensitive soul could melt the coldest heart. I make no bones about it; I want to give her a big hug. Luckily for her the closest I managed was a touch of her hand when she shook the outstretched paws of the first few rows.
This gig followed her Glastonbury début and watching that online it didn’t come across as well as it should. The mix – or the BBC’s continuing failure to broadcast live music satisfactorily - meant her band were close to inaudible. Here in Clapham they sounded full and funky and Mavis was cooking with them. They are a unit. One of the things which makes Mavis stand out from other touring singers is she always uses her own musicians rather than pick-up bands in different countries. It pays off.
Central to the performance and her music in general these days is Mavis’s working relationship with guitarist Rick Holmstrom. The bond between them is unmissable and beautiful to watch. Mavis is the reluctant solo star. She always wanted to remain singing with her family but the death of her father Pops in 2000 brought an end to the Staple Singers and put Mavis into a period of, at first, voluntary inactivity. But eventually she fought her way back and her later run of albums are every bit as essential as the early ones. It’s not blood anymore but it feels like family.
Yet it’s live, singing for people, delivering her message in person, which is at the heart of Mavis Staples, and she calls her group – the trio of Rick on guitar, Jeff Turmes on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums, plus the Deacon and Squeeky on backing vocals (there’s no sister Yvonne tonight) – “the greatest group in the world” (before gently mocking Kanye West’s grandiose claim of being the greatest rock and roll star on the planet) and there’s no doubt there are no more suitable musicians, who totally understand the feel and soul of the Staples, than these.
When Mavis hits an incredible final note on “Respect Yourself” she and Rick shoot each other a wide-eyed look as if to say “Hey, did you hear that?”; when Mavis embarks on a walkabout during “I Like The Things About Me” to touch the hands of those in the front rows she returns with the very faintest of stumbles unseen by most eyes except Rick’s who gives her an “I told you to be careful” twitch of the head. Mavis for her part can’t help but frequently go up to her band and give them cute little loving rabbit punches.
Sixty-five years in the business – Mavis started very young – she’s fit as a flea (my quick attempt to catch a half decent photo proved impossible as she wouldn’t keep still long enough) and can still belt out a song and make a lyric stand out in new ways. Her songs, and those of the Staples Singers, have always had meaning; they’re not lyrics to fill out a few bars of music. “Take that sheet off your face” on “Respect Yourself” conveys both horror and determination and in the set’s only real ballad “Holy Ghost” the glistening in Mavis’s eyes, as she so obviously remembers her father, demonstrate how deeply she inhabits these songs. It takes a comforting smile from Rick to help regain her composure.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen four Mavis gigs in recent years and they’ve all been unique. This set was different from the visit to London for her birthday last year and had even been altered from Glastonbury three days earlier when “Wade In The Water” and “You’re Not Alone” provided two highlights. That those two tracks make way here shows the depth of the well. Staples’ classics “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” and a mirror-ball shining “I’ll Take You There” top and tailed the set; “Freedom Highway” was incendiary; “Can You Get To That”, “We’re Gonna Make It” and “Slippery People” hit the funk; and, forever marching on, never turning back, there were two tracks from her new Your Good Fortune EP, “Fight” which adds the snap of hip-hop to gospel, and “Wish I Had Answered” a number written by Pops for the church and refreshed here from the Staples’ 1963 recording.
“You can buy that EP from over there for five dollars,” says Mavis proudly before correcting herself with that rasping laugh of hers, “I mean five pounds. How much is that? About twenty five dollars?” She’s giggling away. “One potato, two potato…” What price joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations?
Your Good Fortune EP by Mavis Staples is out now on Anti-Records.