The double bill of Mavis Staples and Dr. John was one of the most highly anticipated concerts of the 2013 TD Toronto Jazz Festival. It was a rare opportunity to see two venerable legends perform in one night. And it turned out to be a spectacular evening.
By 7:30 pm the Toronto Star Stage at Nathan Phillips Square was packed with eager fans. There was a tangible feeling of anticipation and most touchingly, profound appreciation for both performers. Many fans reminisced about past Staples experiences. Behind me a journalist shared with her friend that “Bob Dylan was so impressed with Mavis Staples’ voice that he asked her to marry him.”
An excited Danny Marks, host of Jazz.FM91’s BLUZ-FM, welcomed the legendary Mavis Staples to the stage. “Politics have no part in music,” he said. “Spirituality does. I’m incredibly thrilled and incredibly touched to be here and introduce Mavis Staples. I play more Mavis than any radio program in the world. I love Mavis.”
Staples herself may have appreciated the love but disagreed with the belief that “Politics have no part in music.” The Staples family are widely revered as the voices and creators behind the unofficial soundtrack to the civil rights movement. Their decidedly political anthems are intricately linked with historical marches and protests that went on to transform the political landscape of America. And even today, Mavis Staples’ commitment to the struggle hasn’t ceased one bit – as was evident by the passionate set she went on to sing that night.
Following Marks’ introduction Staples’ band took the stage followed by the lady herself.
Petite, blond, glittering in black, with a smile just as lovely as when she was a young woman in the Staples Sisters band, Staples dove right into a gospel-rich soul and R&B set. Singing the joyful “Far Celestial Shore” from her new album One True Vine, Staples had the crowd swaying and hand clapping instantaneously. “We’ve come today to bring you joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibration,” she said. “We’re going to leave you with enough to last you for the next six months.”
At 73-years-old the self-proclaimed “golden girl” is still fierce and relevant. She recently opened a twitter account, three tweets and counting, and her new album is getting fantastic reviews. “Take me home with you,” she said coyly, referring to the limited copies of One True Vine made available for the show. (It was officially released June 24th.)
But getting to the festival came with its complications. Staples has been suffering from severe knee problems and shared that her appearance at the show was almost in question – almost. “Get back satan,” she said in a thunderous voice and a stern look in her eyes, “I’m going to see my friends in Toronto. Nah, he can’t stop me.” Despite occasional wincing (“Once I get that new knee, I’ll be strutting again”), she took few breaks, except to sip water and dab the sweat off her bosom before getting right back up.
For the next hour and a half Staples and her outrageously fantastic band kept the energy on high. With that powerful deep raspy and ragged voice, aged like fine leather and wine, every song sounded better than the last. (Who knew you could party to gospel music?) Staples is endowed with magnetic charisma and charm and she’s not afraid to use it, smiling into the crowd, chatting up the audience and responding to “I Love you Mavis!” with a warm familiar “Thank you girl.” Fans felt acknowledged, and seen, just by a sly wink of her eye.
A Living Legend
They say you need a test in order to testify and this woman sure lives up to that church saying. Between each song Staples took the audience deeper into her life from childhood to the civil rights movement.
“My grandma used to walk around the house, just moaning,” she said, causing knowing chuckles to ripple through the audience. “She moaned while she was cooking, gardening, making her handmade quilts. And I said, ‘I’m going to learn how to do that. I like that moaning.’ One day I asked, “Grandma, why you moan all the time and she said, ‘Well baby, when you moan the devil don’t know what you’re talking about and I don’t want him in my business.’”
She shouted out greats, many she once knew: Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, Mahalia Jackson, and then her sister Yvonne Staples who was in attendance singing backup. “We’re the Staples sisters! We’ve been taking you all there for 63 years and we ain’t tired yet!”
Finally she shared stories about Martin Luther King, Jr. and his favourite Staples song, “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad).” “While traveling with Martin Luther King, he let us know that he liked all of our songs but this particular one was his favorite. We would sing before he spoke and he would say, ‘Pops [Roebuck “Pops” Staples] you gonna sing my song?’ And Pops would say, ‘Oh, yeah doctor, we’re going to sing your song.’”
Staples rendition of “Why?” was breathtaking and emotional. “I’m still here/I’m still here/I’m still here/I’m on the battle field fighting for hope, love and peace,” she wailed, as the band and back-up singers looked on with admiration and the room fell silent. “Keep on walking y’all,” she urged the crowd, with such force that her lips trembled and many of us found ourselves in tears. “I ain’t mean to get ugly,” she said to the shaken crowd, “but you know when the Spirit hits you, you got to move.”
There is an urgency and bliss to her music that has not dimmed. If anything it appears more fever-pitched than ever. The highlights of the show included her righteous rendition of “Freedom Highway,” a song “Written by Pop Staples in 1962 for the march from Selma to Montgomery Alabama” to the self-loving tune “I like the Things about Me.” Without fail Staples brought “it” every time. And when she got to the sexy “Let’s Do it Again” a sweet sinful song about the pleasures of making love, I could only imagine church fans fluttering when that song came out in 1975.
For some, a particular Southern black gospel style and Civil Rights freedom songs are overwrought or antiquated music from days gone by. But in the hands of a master like Staples, you feel its fervor and absolute beauty and conviction. To take songs like “The Weight,” “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” and make them sound alive, fresh and even new, is an art. And a singer who can truly wail (Janis Joplin, Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes and Steven Tyler to name a few) is always exciting and chill inducing. (A Mavis Staples/Brittany Howard duet would be legendary!)
By the time Staples left the stage fans were happily worn out. Who knew that a “golden girl” could still tear the house down?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chaka V. is a writer, journalist and the creator of The Winehouse Mag.