By M.D. Spenser
Ill with a throat infection, Mavis Staples, a consummate entertainer, pranced across The Barbican stage, lifted people up, inspired them and left them yelling until their own throats were sore.
Staples found her greatest fame as lead singer of the Staples Singers in the ’60s and ’70s. But, even as she approaches her 69th birthday, she’s no oldies act.
The bulk of her set was from her 2007 release, “We’ll Never Turn Back”, an album of funked-up civil rights songs produced by Ry Cooder. And great stuff it is – heavy on the bass, heavy on the beat, topped by Staples’ superlative R&B phrasing, which is guaranteed to get you out of your seat.
Still, the announcement that she was sick caused concern. But no need.
“They tried to make me stay in the hotel,” Staples hollered. “I said, ‘No! I want to see my people!’”
She had a mission: “We want to bring you some joy tonight, inspire you if you’re feeling down, give you a reason to get up in the morning.” And that’s just what she did.
Her material doesn’t plumb the loneliness of the inner self; it’s about facing life with faith and happiness.
“Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me round,” she sang as the bass pounded and the three backup singers made a joyful noise.
Staples looks wonderful – handsome face, immaculate hair, broad smile, great moves.
At first, her voice was barely audible. But as the evening progressed, she drew strength from her audience; her voice, far from fading, grew into its normal self. My goodness, she gives the impression she’s having a good time.
She did a couple of old Staples Singers numbers – ‘Respect Yourself’ and ‘I’ll Take You There’ – and there’s something moving about hearing Mavis herself perform them in person.
But she’s immersed in the present and looking toward the future. “We’ve been taking you there for 58 years,” she shouted. “Five-eight! And we ain’t tired yet!” Then she kicked off her high heels, danced up a storm, sang her heart out, and proved it.