You don’t mess with Mavis Staples. In her 67th year, the first grandma of gospel is as fired up by her “freedom songs” as when she fronted The Staple Singers during the civil rights struggle. The group, led by her father, Pops, were Martin Luther King’s house band, and later had a string of soul hits on the Stax label. “Things are better,” Staples has said of today’s racial equality, “but we’re not where we need to be and we’ll never turn back.” Tonight, she looks as if she could whup wickedness with a rolling pin, yet everything she does is galvanisingly joyful.
Her throaty contralto has marched many a mile, but it still has gravelly authority. On “Down in Mississippi” (a J.B. Lenoir cover), “This Little Light of Mine” and “Eyes on the Prize”, Staples shows a preacher’s mastery of phrasing and emphasis – her James Brown-like growls of exhortation being just as motivating as the words. Drawn from her current album, We’ll Never Turn Back, these reworked standards “ain’t no feelgood history lesson” though. Staples was riled by the response, or lack of it, to Hurricane Katrina, and such anger lends this weathered material fresh urgency.
A ballsy “Respect Yourself” and a congregation-leading “I’ll Take You There” pleased Staple Singers fans, but the most moving track was the new version of “Jesus on the Mainline”, as Staples wavered between a cackle and a sob, as if testing her faith in her voice. The way she personalises these songs of collective endeavour gives them their power. Spare but full of reverb, the sound of her band – perhaps
following producer Ry Cooder’s order of service – also had contemporary resonance, especially when guitarist Rick Holmstrom cut loose on “Why”.
The contrast with co-headliners The Blind Boys of Alabama was striking. If Staples is still overcoming injustice, these twinkly old-timers are increasingly overcoming infirmity – no surprise when the lead singer Jimmy Carter has been doing the Lord’s work since 1939. The three elderly vocalists are often passengers as their younger sidemen carry the load, but their heartfelt hollers raised the crowd to its feet. Whether they came to praise the men or the music hardly mattered. This evening proved that the devil doesn’t have all the best tunes.