Music review: Mavis Staples at Lisner Auditorium

TIMELESS: Staples sang old and new hits.
TIMELESS: Staples sang old and new hits. (Marvin Joseph - Washington Post)
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By Chris Klimek
Monday, October 11, 2010

Mavis Staples showed up early for church this weekend -- about 12 hours early. The youngest of the Staples Singers, now a spry septuagenarian, whose husky voice has only grown in authority in the 38 years since "I'll Take You There" was a No. 1 hit, brought a trunkload of soul songs and marches to Lisner Auditorium on Saturday night for a stirring 85-minute revue that conjured the presence of the Lord. She came to play, and to proselytize -- for Jesus and for "You Are Not Alone," her new album, produced and curated by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, which she more than once suggested makes a fine Christmas gift.

Well, it ain't like she's wrong! Like that album, the show was a mix of reinvigorated gospel staples and Staples classics, plus Randy Newman and Creedence Clearwater Revival covers and a handful of well-mannered new stuff. The chugging, Tweedy-penned "Only the Lord Knows" fit seamlessly alongside the Band's "The Weight" and the Staples' civil rights anthem "Freedom Highway." "Pops wrote that one for the march from Selma to Montgomery," Staples recalled while catching her breath after a version of the latter that shook butts out of their seats. Often she became so exercised during her performances that she'd continue chanting the chorus, call-and-response style, after her band had finished a song.

Staples had able, supple support from four backing singers, but it was her three-piece blues-rock trio led by guitarist Rick Holmstrum that busted Little Milton's "We're Gonna Make It" and Allen Toussaint's "Last Train" free of the occasionally too-polite arrangements that Tweedy gave them on record. The trio held the audience rapt with a searing 10-minute instrumental interlude while Staples left the stage. When she returned, Holmstrum's nervy rhythm guitar helped her reclaim "I'll Take You There" from its car-advertisement ubiquity. "We've been takin' y'all there for 60 years!" Staples declared. "And we ain't tired yet!"

Klimek is a freelance writer.

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