thu 22/10/2020

Mavis Staples, Union Chapel review - grand gospel dame still doin' it at 79 | reviews, news & interviews

Mavis Staples, Union Chapel review - grand gospel dame still doin' it at 79

Mavis Staples, Union Chapel review - grand gospel dame still doin' it at 79

Engaging birthday party gig for the civil rights activist and rhythm & blues perennial

“We have come here tonight,” announces Mavis Staples, “to bring you some joy, happiness, inspiration - and positive vibrations!” It’s a declaration that the irrepressible Mavis, celebrating her 79th birthday today, routinely makes at her concerts - and she never fails to deliver.

Tonight is the second of two sold-out nights at Islington’s beautiful Union Chapel, a much-loved venue that’s perfect for Mavis’ brand of joyous, reverent and powerful music and one she clearly adores. She’s played here a few times, including a special show on her 75th birthday in 2014. “It’s my birthday,” she said happily that night, “and I’m in a beautiful church with my friends.” She’s delighted to be back with her friends again, tickled by the audience’s rendition of “Happy Birthday”, brandishing an England football scarf (“England has already told me that they will be winning,” she claims ahead of the World Cup semi-final) and teasing excitable fans who shout out in their “terrible accents”.

After coming on stage to rapturous applause from a thrilled audience already up on its feet, Mavis kicks things off with the Staple Singers’ “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)” – which must be bittersweet for her to sing without Yvonne, her older sister and fellow Staple Singer who frequently toured with her and died in April this year. It’s one of only a handful of Staple Singers’ songs tonight, including “What You Gonna Do” and a scorching “Let’s Do It Again” - the Curtis Mayfield track that the Staples covered, causing churchman Pops to balk at its saucy lyrics. “Oh Pops,” Curtis reassured him, according to Mavis, “the Lord won’t mind!”

The bulk of tonight’s set is instead made up of rich pickings from Mavis’ solo albums, featuring amongst others a sublime version of “Far Celestial Shore” from 2013’s One True Vine, a brisk “We’re Gonna Make It” from 2010’s Jeff Tweedy collaboration You Are Not Alone, and the achingly moving title track of the same album. 

Most heavily mined, naturally, is Mavis’ current record, If All I Was Was Black. Race relations in today’s America, the Black Lives Matter movement and families being ripped apart at the US border are all touched on in powerful tracks including “Little Bit”, “Who Told You That”, “Build a Bridge” and “No Time for Crying” – the latter featuring Mavis’s intent to “march right up to that big house” and tell “that man to sit down”.   

An encore comprising a reprise of “Little Bit” and a rousing rendition of the Staples’ “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend” – with Mavis taking her own advice by shaking the outstretched hands of delighted audience members near the front – brings the show to a close, surprising fans expecting to be sent out dancing to “I’ll Take You There”. But while there might have been a few changes to tradition – there was no sign of the Staples’ version of “The Weight”, either – this was a very special evening in the presence of one of the all-time greats, a tireless performer who shows hardly a sign of slowing down in the pursuit of righteousness, human rights and the bringing of joy, inspiration, happiness and positive vibrations.  

“I tell you, there’s just no stopping me!” laughs Mavis at one point, seemingly surprised at herself. But, as she sings in “No Time for Crying”, “we got work to do.” And Mavis is not going to stop while it’s there to be done.

Overleaf: Watch Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy perform an acoustioc version of "You Are Not Alone"

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