Its hard to find someone that has both embraced modern music, and also made it their own, more than Mavis Staples. Even going back to the late sixties and early seventies, Her family band The Staples Singers had already worked with and covered songs from artists like Bob Dylan, Curtis Mayfield, and The Band. Nearly sixty years later, she’s worked with contemporary artists like Arcade Fire, Run The Jewels and Hozier. Just this past weekend, she was welcomed onstage with Chris Stapleton and the Highwomen. Tonight, to a packed audience, she opened for Bonnie Raitt at the Ledge Amphitheater. Any artist would kill to work with any of those names But to Mavis Staples, it’s just another day in the life.
As long and vast as her musical history is, her opening setlist was just a small fraction of the music that spans her career. But, when you have seventy four years of music to go off of in just 30 minutes – any artist would be hard pressed to fit in as much as they could. However, fans were not let down by the setlist. She opened to grand applause to a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s For What Its Worth, a version that was a bit more funkier than the original song, its message still as important today as it was fifty-six years ago. After performing I’m Just Another Soldier, Mavis said to “take the seatbelts off now” she joked, and asked us to stand up and dance. With the exception of the first few rows swaying along to I’ll Take You There toward the end of the night, the rest of the audience remained seated. It is middle-Minnesota after all. The only way to get these people to dance is if you can play polka.
She dedicated her next song, Handwriting on the Wall To the late Levon Helm, who Mavis had worked with during her latest album Carry Me Home. The new album is a recording of a 2011 performance at Levon Helm’s studio, during one of his Midnight Ramble sessions Levon would Invite musicians to play at in his Home studio in Woodstock, NY. Everyone from Dr. John and Drive-By Truckers to Norah Jones and My Morning Jacket were part of these sessions, however listening to her new album leading up to the show, I can’t imagine anyone sounding better than Mavis, and it’s a real treat this session is available now.
While Mavis’s most recognizable material may not have come until the end of the set, she did include a few more covers that she was able to make her own, In true staples singer fashion. Slippery People was a welcome Talking Heads cover that also got some people up and dancing, as well as a Funkadelic cover of Can You Get To That. Respect Yourself and I’ll Take You There ended the set, both hallmarks of the Staple Singer catalog. “I’ve been taking you there for 74 years!” Mavis said to the crowd, who seemed to be surprised she has been doing it for that long (Mavis herself is 83). To more cheers she said “And i ain’t tired yet!” before letting her band close the song as she walked off the stage, waving back at us.
The only downside to the night I could find was the lack of a duet between Mavis and Bonnie Raitt, which would have been a fantastic moment for all in attendance. However, Bonnie Raitt had nothing but good things to say about Mavis during her set later in the evening. She talked about how much it meant to have her on tour and told us “When something aint right in the world and I feel down, I give Mavis a call, and she makes me feel better.” Like Bonnie, Mavis was the prescription we all needed, And i’m glad we got a good dosage Friday night.