Mavis Staples Brings Some Soul to Landmark

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Nicole Atkins Opens

I wanted to title this review “Women with voices who know how to use them,” because that would accurately represent the spectacular concert that took place on Sunday, June 4th at Landmark on Main Street [2017].

The opening act, Nicole Atkins, is a returnee to Landmark. She originally performed there in 2015, and put on a stunning show. [The review may be found at: http://annreviews.com/2015/03/nicole-atkins-gives-powerful-performance-at-landmark-on-main] On this occasion, it was just Atkins and an acoustic guitar. While I missed Marc Muller, the outstanding guitar player that accompanied her at the last concert, Atkins’ voice is so incredible that she barely needs any accompaniment. If I could steal anyone’s voice (a la Ursula from The Little Mermaid) it would be Atkins’. Her range and intonation are superb. She performed a number of songs from her upcoming album, Goodnight Rhonda Lee (due out on July 21) including the title track. Atkins uses a second microphone on a stand (which she named “Stanley”) combined with electronic effects to get interesting vocal sounds (she referred to this as her “horn section”). One of the best from the new album is “A Little Crazy,” co-written by Chris Isaak, which showcases Atkin’s soaring vocals. Other standouts included “Cry, Cry, Cry” and “Listen Up.” Atkin’s amazing voice and extensive range have led to her being compared to the late, great Roy Orbison, and so it was fitting that she closed her set with a breathtaking rendition of Orbison’s song, “Crying.”

Mavis Staples Photo by Jalylah Burrell 20070801

After a short intermission, Mavis Staples’ band took the stage and played her in. Her five-piece band included bandleader and guitarist Rick Holmstrom, Stephen Hodges on drums, Jeff Tumes on bass, backup singer and percussionist Vicki Randle, and backup singer Donny Gerard – together they formed a tight cohesive unit.

Staples took the stage and launched into “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” a Staple Singers classic from the early 1970’s. I was amazed at both the sheer power of her voice, and at her tiny size – she was a head shorter than her backing musicians.

A bit about the great Ms. Staples: She began singing with her family group, The Staple Singers, when she was only 11, and they took the show on the road when Staples graduated from high school. The family band was closely affiliated with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s – Staples’ father, “Pops” Staples was close friends with Martin Luther King, Jr. Mavis Staples has had a career that has spanned close to 68 years, amazingly, and included performing as part of the group and as a solo artist. Her sound is genre-spanning, and includes soul, gospel, blues, and more. Staples is committed to her music – a fact evidenced by her brief 1964 marriage that ended when Staples refused to end her music career and stay home. Another interesting fact about Staples – Bob Dylan allegedly proposed to her in the 1960’s. [The two have remained friends and she toured with Dylan last summer.]

Mavis Staples is an amazing performer. During the course of Sunday’s sold-out show, she growled, screamed, shrieked, howled, and used her God-given voice in ways that one rarely hears since James Brown passed away. Without a doubt, Staples is a dynamo. She covered a great variety of songs, including, “Can You Get to That,” “Love and Trust,” and explosive versions of “Respect Yourself” and “Freedom Highway.” But in addition, she covered some more unlikely tunes, such as Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” and the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” giving them her own unique sound.

Her band was superb, as were her backup singers who often took turns singing with Staples. For instance, she performed a duet with Donny Gerard (who sounded a lot like Tom Jones) in “We’re Gonna Make it.” Rather than announce the names of her band in the usual fashion, Staples sang their names while she asked the audience to “Show some love!” The audience was tremendously passionate – shouting out to Staples between songs.

Between songs Staples talked about her early years playing with her family as well as her time as a civil rights activist. She slowed it down to play the beautiful “Dedicated,” one of my particular favorites. Staples closed with the early 1970’s Staple Singers hit, “I’ll Take You There,” complete with enthusiastic audience participation.

Staples comes from an era when performers gave their all to the audience – and she certainly did on Sunday at Landmark. It was an honor to experience this legendary performer.

Next up at Landmark is Aimee Mann on June 20 (read my 2011 interview), and Joan Osborne (reviewed in 2015 and previously in 2012) on June 23. For tickets and more information about upcoming performances at Landmark, visit www.landmarkonmainstreet.org

Image Credit: Jalylah Burrell (2007) via Wikipedia 

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