Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples
Live: Hope At The Hideout


By Art Tipaldi
October 2009

There are few voices in the world compelling enough to turn heads. Mavis Staples has one of them.

Born in the church, raised in a family rooted in the blues of the delta, matured in the civil rights movement and broadcast nationally by Stax Records, Staples is the voice of a people. As a teen she displayed a deeply elegant voice that conveyed her earnest testimony. Today, that voice has developed a throaty rasp that channels inspiration even in Staples’ quietist hum.

Staples has come a long way from her early days sharing vocals in the family gospel group. Though she has recorded R&B as a solo artist, Mavis has never given up her gospel roots. Staples’ songs, which celebrate people and spirit, are a timely wake-up call to the insanity of the modern world. Her plush delivery signifies that message over and over.

Her current CD, Live: Hope At The Hideout on Anti, is a gorgeous collection of time honored spirituals like “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “This Little Light Of Mine” swirled together with songs essential to the civil rights movement like “Eyes On The Prize” and “Freedom Highway.” Recorded live, it’s like Mavis is standing in your living room singing a history lesson.

She opens the set with the Buffalo Springfield classic, “For What It’s Worth.” As Rick Holmstrom handles the Stephen Stills reverb, Staples leaves no doubt that this song is as relevant today as when it was first popular. She follows with “Eyes On The Prize” and “Down In Mississippi,” which both shine a light on the darkness and faith in the times leading up to the civil rights movement.

“Waiting For My Child,” with only Staples’ calls and Holmstrom’s answers, is the highlight of the first half of the record. Staples walks away from the mic mid-song and ends with a plea to bring all children home from wars.

On Staples’ eight-minute testimony “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” the choir of her sister Yvonne Staples, Donny Gerrard and Chavonne Morris offers the congregational responses to Mavis’ delicate calls. By mid-song, Staples testifies to the sharecropper’s life she and millions of others experienced. That story of her Grandmother’s field moaning exemplifies the folk wisdom passed from one generation to another in the cotton fields.

Her elegant treatment of the seven-minute “We Shall Not Be Moved” is a quiet reminder of the unified strength of people when they come together. In the middle of the song, Staples raps her experiences in segregated lunch counter sit-ins when this song rallied against dogs, fire hoses, and police batons.

Her encore includes a three-minute introduction to “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” explaining how Pops Staples taught his family their first song. Led by Holmstrom’s guitar reverb, Stephen Hodges’ percussive jabs and the rock solid bass work of Jeff Turmes, Staples turns The Hideout into a rockin’ cotton field church.

From traditional Negro spirituals to modern vocalists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke, American popular music relies heavily on its spiritual roots. No one embodies that combination more emphatically than Mavis Staples. When Staples ends the night by singing “I’ll Take You There,” it is both a hand-waving gospel testimony and a sing-along pop anthem. Backed only by Holmstrom’s pinpoint guitar and a club of handclaps, Staples takes us all there.

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