Mavis Staples brought more than a little bit of church with her to the Birchmere on Friday night in a show that was as much Sunday service as it was concert.
Reeling off songs and stories from her five-decade career in gospel and soul, Staples led her classy four-piece band through a brief but impressive performance that traversed peaks of ebullience and valleys of despair. A growler and a howler one moment, a gentle soothsayer the next, the 65-year-old Staples seemed spiritually invested in each song. It's as if her life -- and yours -- depended on how well she sang and how much she felt.
Raising her hands to summon the spirit and dropping her voice to plead for guidance, she was a magnetic and forceful presence. She also had a fabulous little trick of occasionally singing away from the microphone in a way that gave her voice an entirely different dimension. Her expressiveness and obvious joy in performing made for an audience experience that went beyond simply listening to music. And the good-sized crowd for the late-evening show enthusiastically expressed its appreciation.
Staples' earthiness shone through on classic fare that included "I'll Take You There," "Respect Yourself," "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)" and a cover of the Band's "The Weight." With help from sister Yvonne, she performed "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," the first song she ever sang in public with her late father, Pops Staples, and the Staple Singers.
The title track from her new album, "Have a Little Faith," and another new song, "God Is Not Sleeping," felt like steady, reassuring answers to uncertain times. "God is not through with me yet," Staples told the cheering crowd. "I've got a lot more work to do." For that, there is much to be thankful for.
-- Joe Heim
Levine Jazz Faculty
The setting was more conference hall than cabaret at the Swiss Embassy on Friday night, but no matter. Three jazz faculty members of the Levine School of Music turned a program devoted to Cole Porter and the Gershwins into a cozy celebration of the composers' art and genius.
Vocalist Christina Crerar, pianist Robert Sykes and trumpeter Chris Battistone brought a lightly swinging and relaxed touch to the performance, brimming with pop favorites yet delightfully punctuated now and then by a seldom-heard verse. Crerar's sunny voice was particularly well suited to the more cheerful songs, including "Fascinatin' Rhythm," "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To" and "You Do Something to Me." And there was no mistaking her harmonic finesse when she began to scat, gracefully embellishing " 'S Wonderful" and other evergreens.
Sykes occasionally compensated for the absence of a bassist with pumping left-hand "walking" patterns, and he fashioned compact improvisations dotted with flowing melodic variations. Battistone, meanwhile, added both commentary and color. In addition to responding to the vocals with blues-tinted refrains, he used trumpet, flugelhorn and a few mutes to brighten and shade the uncluttered arrangements. Of the ballads, none proved more affecting than "Every Time We Say Goodbye," which was soulfully enhanced by Sykes's reflective solo and Battistone's warm-toned fluegelhorn. In the end, what shone brightest were the matchless lyrics and the enduring melodies heard throughout the evening -- additional testimony to the trio's sensitivity and taste.
-- Mike Joyce
David Lindley can't let well enough alone. Sitting on the Jammin' Java stage on Friday, he was surrounded by a veritable Stringhenge: the necks of instruments, most of which he'd had made or customized.
And each song essayed by the mutton-chopped virtuoso, clad in a shirt that suggested an earthquake in Margaritaville, was equally original. Lindley would venture into a thicket of notes and chords, rhythms and overtones, and tramp on through until, suddenly, he'd arrive at an unexpected clearing: some song he'd croon in his piercing voice. The Warren Zevon songs "Seminole Bingo" and "The Indifference of Heaven" each shone through the embellishments as brightly as any single flower in a lush natural habitat.
"Jimmy Hoffa Memorial Building Blues," played on a square-neck lap guitar built by an Australian luthier, featured a choppy reggae rhythm that belied the "blues" of the title -- and a sinuous slide that brought the genres together. Lindley delivered the traditional "Lazy Farmer Boy" on a bouzouki he'd modified with extra frets to be more like a Turkish saz, the same instrument he later used for Timbuk 3's cynical "National Holiday."
As with his exploration of genres, Lindley's lengthy, often incredible introductions and interruptions pulled everything together into one big Lindleyville, a place the packed audience was happy to inhabit. Such a master performer is this man that he could offer up a gorgeous Turkish oud -- "the scariest instrument I ever plugged in," he said -- and use it for a contemplative song called "When a Guy Gets Boobs."
-- Pamela Murray Winters