November 28, 2010
Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Mavis Staples is a joyful woman. Above all other things, joy is what she was bringing to the Cedar last night. With a smile as big as her booming voice, Staples infused her performance with as much gospel and soul as a revival.
[jump] She opened up the evening with an old gospel hymn, "Wonderful Savior," sung a capella. It certainly set the tone for the evening, and with Staples' low, solemn voice aged to perfection, it wasn't long before a wide-eyed crowd was swaying and stomping to the music.
"We are so happy to be back in Minnesota! Been a while since we've been here," smiled Staples, referring to her last performance at the Dakota six months ago. "We wanna leave you lifted, wanna give you enough to leave you lifted for the next six months!"
A large portion of Staples' set was pulled from her new album You Are Not Alone, produced by Wilco frontman-slash-genius Jeff Tweedy. The album performed live is, if possible, further stripped of any ambition but to return to the roots of the music. Staples was accompanied on stage by a trio of back-up singers--her sister Yvonne (the only other member of the original Staples Singers family group), Vicki Randle, and the majestically soulful Donny Gerrard.
Her band consisted of a masterful Rick Holmstrom on guitar, Jeff Turmes on bass, and Stephen Hodges on drums, who together produced a sound that felt as though there were at least three more instruments on stage. These gentlemen knew exactly how to play to Staples' gravelly crooning, leaving her room to get big and bold and filling in the spaces where she pulled back. When Staples took a little on-stage breather, grabbing a chair with her sister, her band let loose on a set of climbing instrumentals--a good old-fashioned jam session interlude. Holmstrom easily slid in and out with his guitar, punching the air between drum beats and bass loops, and Staples clearly enjoyed the show for herself from her seat behind him as she clapped her hands and encouraged the audience to join in. (No one objected.)
Perhaps even more stirring than the religious fervor of her songs was the reminder of what Mavis Staples stands for--the endless struggle for civil rights, and the way she is part of that history. Staples was not hesitant to remind us.
"Oh, 1965!" Staples proclaimed after the passionate and moving "Freedom Highway." "That song was written by my father, Pops Staples, about the march from Selma to Montgomery... I'm still on that highway, y'all, and I will still be there 'til Dr. King's dream is realized. Somebody say 'Yeah!" The venue shook with the response from the audience.
The performance was churchy, but far from preachy, and Staples showcased more than just gospel as she covered Randy Newman's "Losing You" with a haunting tenderness, the same guttural feeling that she seared into on her album's title track, "You Are Not Alone." There was enough emotion there to quiet the clapping and affirming crowd.
Staples closed her performance with a furiously passionate "I'll Take You There." The crowd was grateful for the generous performance (nearly a two-hour set), and feeling somehow more free--audience members who were strangers before were hugging each other. As Staples promised at the beginning of the evening, she left her audience lifted--a sensation that will undoubtedly last.
Critic's Bias: I don't know how you couldn't like Mavis Staples. Really.
The Crowd: Like they were experiencing religion for the first time. (Maybe they were?) Yeah, that enthusiastic.
Overheard In The Crowd: "We still need a governor!" (To which Staples replied, "If I was your governor, I'd be pullin' on your purse all day!")
Random Notebook Dump: Certainly the closest I've come to going to church in a long time. Also, Mavis Staples is a legend. To see her in the gymnasium-style Cedar was humbling, at the least.
For more photos: See our full slideshow by Alexa Jones.
Wrote A Song For Everyone
Creep Along Moses
You're Not Alone
Only The Lord Knows
Too Close/On My Way To Heaven
We're Gonna Make It
I Belong To The Band
I'll Take You There