in performance: mavis staples

Mavis Staples.

Mavis Staples isn’t one for letting an opportunity pass her by.

During one of the few moments where she was able to catch her breath during a show rich with revivalistic vigor last night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, the Grammy-winning gospel/soul vocalist and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee gave the audience a gentle verbal nudge to the merchandise table, knowing that Mother’s Day was just a few hours away.

“Y’all can shop for mama right here.”

Judging by the often rapturous sounds that surrounded the 80 minute performance, however, Staples had no need to hawk anything to do with her music. If you didn’t sense the soul and spirit in a show like this, then, brother, you are lost.

The concert was divided between classics Staples sang with her esteemed family band The Staple Singers decades ago and works from her solo career – specifically, tunes from several recent Jeff Tweedy-produced albums.

In short order, though, it was almost beside the point where the material originated. In Staples’ hands, everything became a source of ageless, gospel-esque joy. At 78, she recognizes the limits of her still-potent vocal range, which gave a sagely but soulful cast to Staples Singers classics like “Come Go With Me,” a contemporary affirmation like Benjamin Booker’s “Take Us Back,” Tweedy’s more ominous “Who Told You That” and, in the setlist’s wildest extreme, Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” whose underlying spiritual cast became bluntly obvious within Staples’ rueful delivery.

But the clear highlight was “Freedom Highway,” the Staples Singers tune that served as an anthem of sorts during the civil rights movement. It was hard to tell which was more chilling – Staples’ ageless vocal might that roared regally over the lean groove of an instrumental trio and two backup vocalists or the story and subsequent tent revival testimony she summoned after the song’s completion. In plain speaking detail, she described not only how she and her father and siblings were jailed for their participation in the era-defining Alabama march from Selma to Montgomery, but her family’s way of coping with the crisis.

“We’d go to jail, get out and start all over again.” Amen to that.

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