For her first Bay area visit in quite a long time last Saturday night, Mavis Staples treated an eager Mahaffey Theater audience to a concert of her trademark rich, husky vocals and inimitable charm.
The gospel/rhythm and blues singer extraordinaire took the stage just before 9 p.m. and immediately launched into a heartfelt rendition of the hymn "I Am His and He Is Mine." Her voice in fine form, Mavis boasted a beaming, confident smile that reflected her pleasure at returning to the stage for the first night of a worldwide tour she's just embarked on.
Mixing traditional spiritual material with soul, pop, and rhythm and blues is nothing new for Staples. Dating back to her early days as part of the singing family act The Staples Singers and under the guidance of her father and bandleader, Mavis learned early on the importance of juggling genres and in the process, managed to master all of them.
One of the most unique and unmistakable vocalists in the history of recorded music, Mavis's voice is a finely honed instrument that flows out of her body naturally and effortlessly, and fills a room with its presence and command. The opening notes of "The Weight," The Band classic that The Staples adopted as part of their repertoire many years ago, were met with rousing applause as Staples crooned the all-too-familiar first lyric. Verses were traded among her fine band, which consisted of ace musicians and stellar backup singers (including original Staples member and older sister Yvonne Staples).
For her reading of the Staples classic "Freedom Highway," Mavis interjected with a brief recollection of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's dream and how we as people are "still on the battlefield." Her words were particularly poignant considering she and her family knew Dr. King personally, and also coming only days before the holiday commemorating MLK.
Seamlessly mixing in classics like the early 1960's Staples hit "Too Close to Heaven" with material from her superb Jeff Tweedy-produced 2010 album You Are Not Alone, Staples captivated throughout her 80-minute set thanks to her still-strong and mighty vocal prowess.
The audience was also treated to some tasty instrumental work from lead guitarist Rick Holmstrom, bassist Jeff Turmes and drummer Stephen Hodges as they took center stage for a few numbers while Mavis took a short break.
Wrapping the night up with (arguably) the Staples' best-known track "I'll Take You There," Mavis successfully cajoled the crowd into singing the familiar chorus of the uplifting 1972 classic, and they gladly obliged.
Mavis Staples has been singing and performing for the majority of her life. At 73 years of age, she still boasts an amazing vocal range and based on strong performances like the one we were treated to on Saturday night and a brand new CD of original music in the not-so-distant horizon, it appears that she still has a lot of singing left to do. After all these years, Mavis Staples continues to take us there, again and again.