Majestic Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples at the 2008 Kitchener Blues Festival. Photo by Stefan Myles, Wikimedia Commons

The queen of gospel music, Mavis Staples, reigned majestically over a near full house at the Grand Theatre in Kingston last Tuesday evening.

Given the history and experience Ms. Staples brings to the stage, one couldn’t help but feel privileged to be there. One just has to hear her enveloping, deep, powerful voice for a moment to become captivated.

She inspired us with songs and stories of hope and courage.  I’m old enough to remember the civil rights marches in the US back in the ’60’s, the segregation of blacks, of the growing leadership of Martin Luther King Jr., the struggles that went on and, though my awareness was only via newspapers, radio and television growing up in Toronto, I remember being angry at all the racial discrimination, the murders, the Klu Klux Klan and rampant inequality.

I was also inspired by  people’s dedication to the cause of equality and their attempts at peaceful protest, in spite of government and judicial injustices.

And here was Mavis telling us about how her father, Pops Staples, had written songs for many marches, including the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches that finally gave blacks the vote. Knowing the song’s history gave even more appreciation for her version of “Freedom Highway”.

The Staples Singers family band supported Reverend King’s work for years. She witnessed the beatings by police and army.  This 72 year-old dame continues to remind us of the struggles that continue—and that together, we will overcome. She truly inspires.

Ably backed by Rick Holmstrom on guitar and vocals, Stephen Hodges on drums, Jeff Turmes on bass and vocals, her older sister Yvonne Staples and Vicki Randle and Donny Gerrard on backing vocals, Mavis strutted her way back and forth across the stage, encouraging everyone to join in, to clap, to respond in chorus. She had the crowd in the palm of her hand.

Mavis has been performing since she was 11 years old, and after 61 years of being on the road, you’ve got to wonder at the energy and drive she exhibits.

Though she doesn’t flaunt her religious views, she definitely gets across her convictions, her trust in her Lord — whom she thanks and acknowledges has given her this gift of an incredibly unique voice.

Ms. Staples also highlighted several tunes off her Grammy-winning album You Are Not Alone, praising Wilco‘s Jeff Tweedy for his wonderful production as well as writing two songs for the album, including the title track, which she performed.

Stephen Stills‘ “For What It’s Worth” has long been a regular in her solo repertoire, and going back with the Staple Singers, and Mavis and company showed us why.

Though from her first notes she had me, it was “I’ll Take You There” that cemented the deal.

Mavis, took the time to get the audience beyond their usual comfort zone in encouraging them to sing the response chorus and, after the third try the vocal power realized was stimulating and empowering to everyone there, I’m sure.  Oh, how she worked the room: a master.

There are few concerts I’ve waited so long to happen, my expectations growing the closer it got and, Mavis, if you’re listening, you lived up to everything I hoped for.  A memorable experience.  I thank you.

Twas truly an honour to be in your company.

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1 comment

  1. Carrie Catherine 9 February, 2012 at 22:20

    Wow. Heading to Memphis for Folk Alliance this February, where I went on my first tour of Stax Records years ago. During that same trip, I saw Al Green preach in his own church. Life changing. I’ve always been a fan of Mavis Staples but have never seen her live. Thanks for sharing this…

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