by Cat Johnson
It’s hard to talk about Mavis Staples without getting all gushy and resorting to saying things like ‘She’s just amazingly awesome,’ ‘You have to check her out,’ ‘She’s one of our great musical treasures’ and other totally non-descriptive fan-rants. But, all of the above statements are true and if you don’t know who Mavis Staples is, a little digging on your part will lead you to one of the greatest gospel, soul, and blues divas that this planet has ever known.
Yesterday at the San Jose Jazz Fest (which I now know is one of the most extraordinary events in the area and am already looking forward to next year), Mavis packed the park, and although she’s slowing down a bit (she took a two-song breather mid-set while the band rocked out), she has still got it. She started her set slow and steady, singing a lot of tunes from her latest (and Grammy-winning) album You Are Not Alone. In between songs she told stories, reminded us of how far the civil rights journey has come and how far we still have to go, and sprinkled in plenty of gospel shouts and hollers. When she sang “I Belong to the Band” the place started rocking and by the time she got to the last song, which everyone in the place knew would be “I’ll Take You There,” the park was a hotbed of energy with everybody singing, dancing, clapping and swaying.
When she left the stage, I just sat there and shook my head, so grateful to have had another chance to see Mavis doing her thing. She is a beacon of love, justice and groove and, as she reminded us, she and her family have been taking us there for over 60 years.
by Cat Johnson
Oooh. The new Mavis Staples album is so good. And not in an old-timer-trying-to-revive-a-career way, but in an Oh-snap!-She’s-still-got-it kind of way.
We went to see Mavis play in Santa Cruz last year at the Rio and by the time we got there, the place was packed. The only seats left were in…the front row! I’m not kidding. It was divinely inspired. And, when she rocked the house with her extended version of I’ll Take You There, I was acutely aware that I was having one of those I-will-never-forget-this-moment kind of moments. It was amazing.
Anyway, here’s the lowdown on Mavis and her new album.
You Are Not Alone was recorded and produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who also wrote 2 of the tunes especially for Mavis.
The album was recorded in the Loft, Wilco’s studio in Chicago.
Mavis is 60+ years into her recording career and has won just about every award there is to win. They finally just gave her a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the keys the the kingdom.
Tweedy saw Mavis live for the first time in 2008 and immediately decided that he wanted to work with her.
Tweedy chose a bunch of potential material for the album, including a handful of old-school Staples Singers tunes, and he and Mavis weeded through them and whittled the list down to 13.
You Are Not Alone contains songs written by John Fogerty, Randy Newman, Jeff Tweedy, Little Milton, Pops Staples, Allan Toussaint, Rev. Gary Davis as well as reworkings of some traditional songs that have been making the rounds since way back in the day.
Apparently the Jeff Tweedy/Mavis Staples connection was immediate, and they both loved working together. Mavis said she felt like they’d been working together for years.
So there you have it; some little nibbles to get you interested in the new Mavis Staples album. I sometimes worry that people get turned off by gospel because of the (duh) religious overtones. But, you have to remember that gospel music is one of the great American musical treasures, and is one of the biggest roots of the American musical tree.
Regardless of race or creed, if you are at all interested in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, the blues and American roots music, you will inevitable end up drinking from the gospel river. And anyway, most of this music is about thanks and praise, and what’s not to like about a little gratitude and joy. It’s about getting into the spirit behind the lyrics, or for some, getting into the spirit in the lyrics. It’s like Mavis sings, “Join hands, have faith…whatever your faith may be.” And if you’re completely opposed to such things, then just listen to the music because I’m telling you, this is the good stuff. This is funky, booty-rocking, toe-tapping, hand-clapping, soul and spirit music.
(Sorry this one cuts off. The pickings with actual footage are surprisingly few.)