What does it sound like?:
Mavis Staples is eighty in July. She has no intention of slowing down. There have been three celebratory events where the likes of David Byrne, Maggie Rogers, Jason Isbell and Norah Jones have shown their appreciation. Live In London, recorded at The Union Chapel was released in February. There is this brand new studio album and the small matter of a mini world tour: in June, she will perform at Glastonbury, Dublin, Amsterdam, Norrmalm and Antwerp. As she pithily puts it, “I’m over the hill, but now I’m going over the mountain.”
Mavis has evolved as an recording artist over the decades. Her voice is less sweet than in the sixties and is now darker in hue, capable of an authoritative growl. She is always willing to embrace modern producers and songwriters. However, her message of peaceful protest has been consistent and she still knows how to fully inhabit a song, unerringly finding its core and drawing out its strengths.
The nearly fifty year old young man occupying the producer’s seat this time is Ben Harper. He was brought up in a household full of Soul music, so Mavis Staples is part of his DNA. He knows exactly how to write the kind of material on which she thrives. He is also wise enough to do his homework. He attended a few of her concerts and immediately recognised that her touring band, with The Staples Sisters on backing vocals, is her family. Rick Holmstrom on guitar, Jeff Turmes bass and Stephen Hodges drums have Muscle Shoals in their bones. Set up, as live, in the studio, Harper gave them enough flexibility to respond to each other intuitively, just as they do on stage in front of an audience.
The result is a potent collection of songs where every note is placed with a masterful touch. This is calm, assertive music, appealing to both hearts and minds. There is the disappointment that sixty years on after Martin Luther King’s death, progress on civil rights remains slow and there is grief for those lost on the way, but Mavis’s gentle, uplifting Gospel Soul never fails to lift the spirit. With Mavis around, there is always hope.
The album cover illustrates where she comes from. Outside Looking In is a photograph taken by Gordon Parks exposing the realities of racial segregation in the sixties. We Get By is an almost flawless summation of Mavis Staple’s entire career. Let’s enjoy her while she’s still with us.
What does it all *mean*?
There is a good case to be made that Mavis Staples is in an imperial phase. Most of her work this decade has been excellent.
Goes well with…
A young heart.
Might suit people who like…
Her previous album If All I Was Was Black, produced and written by Jeff Tweedy. In fact, if you play them back to back, you can barely hear the join.