July 2007

Mavis Staples
at the Toronto Jazz Festival
July 1, 2007Toronto Star StageNathan Phillips SquareToronto
A Shining Light
by Joyce Corbett with photo by Roger Humbert
Mavis Staples is a popular singer, a singer of the people, by the people and for the people. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech and freedom marches were among the words and images summoned to the fore of consciousness as Mavis Staples sang her way through her personal history, the history of Black America and the issues of today. Most of the songs were from her new CD We’ll Never Turn Back, and that message was strong. She sang about the huge accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement and warned against apathy — “there is still discrimination and there are still wars — don’t think you can’t effect change.”

As a young girl, Mavis Staples sang gospel songs in her family’s group, The Staple Singers. By the ‘50s they had become a part of the Civil Rights Movement. By the ‘60s, they were travelling and touring with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. using faith and song as a source of courage and inspiration and as a unifying force. Carrying on that legacy, Mavis Staples knows what she is talking about and when she talks, you listen. She leaves no doubt as to the power of song to move others, to unite, to inspire, to keep you strong and to overcome.

The crowd cheered and clapped as Mavis Staples arrived on stage. It was a rock star greeting. Then they listened in stunned silence as Staples began the show at the beginning: relating memories from her childhood through the chilling blues, “Down in Mississippi”. From immeasurable depths of emotion, the words hit with the brutal force of awful truths; lyrics like “they have a hunting season on the rabbit, if you shoot ‘em you went to jail but the season was always open on me” and a story about the “colored” and “white” drinking fountains; but also, ”I’m so glad I can say that I saw every one of them signs come down, Dr. King saw that all of them signs were taken down”.

Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples would continue through anthems of the Civil Rights movement, classics from the ‘60s and ‘70s and end with a double encore. The show was a journey through her experience and through social history at the same time, from her childhood to the unknowable future.

“Eyes on the Prize” was the second step along the journey, sung exactly as it should be, with unwavering strength. Propelled by the impressive band and enriched by the interplay and harmonies of the three backup singers, this steamroller was a highlight for me. “What the mind can conceive, and the heart can believe, your body can achieve. Keep your eyes on the prize." “Eyes on the Prize” used for a play written in the ‘60s and the name of a PBS series about the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. It is a song with roots in a long folk history, probably dating back to the depression era as the “Gospel Plough” adapted by bluegrass great Bill Monroe and sung by Bob Dylan.

The Stephen Stills/Buffalo Springfield classic “For What It’s Worth” (Something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear) came as a welcome surprise to the many baby boomers in the tent as did Robbie Robertson’s “The Weight” (Take a load off Annie) and “Respect Yourself” later in the show.

“This Little Light of Mine” prompted one young woman to shout out “I love you Mavis!” Mavis replied “Get up here, girl, we need your spirit!” The young woman did climb the stairs to the stage and remained there clapping along to the next song, a rousing and inspiring “Jesus is on the Mainline”. “I’ll Take You There” had everyone singing and clapping along. One of Pops Staples’ favourites “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” and “March for Freedom” were pillars of the program.

Watching Mavis Staples leave the stage after her double encore of “On My Way” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken?”, unsteady on her feet as she took the arm of the stage manager, it was clear she had given us everything she had…and more. Mavis Staples’ “little” light is potent. Its positive force is galvanizing, I thought, as I watched a man on crutches lead a blind man out of the tent. We had been in the presence of greatness beyond the musical through the great force of music.

The band
Rick Holmstrom – guitar
Jeff Turmes – bass
Stephen Hodges - drums

Backup singers
Yvonne Staples
Donny Gerrard
Chavonne Morris

We welcome your comments and feedback
Joyce Corbett
• • • • • •
Roger Humbert
• •
The Live Music Report

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