Mavis Staples: Lincoln Center Out of Doors 31 July 2011

Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin all in one week. Lord, this must be heaven.

The concert at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was at 7:00pm and I was trying to meet rtb at 6:00pm but somehow got on the Lexington Avenue and instead of the Seventh Avenue IRT. So I had to take the M66 crosstown bus, which drops me off at Lincoln Center’s doorstep. I still made great time but wandered off to the wrong section of the plaza – and when did they change the fountain? – and I was sitting near the theater wondering why some seats were facing the stage and others the pool/sculpture and realized these were way too few seats for Mavis Staples and I set off for Damrosch Park, which is the direction I should have gone in in the first place and found rtb. They have all sorts of light rigging that pretty much covers the bandshell except for the pointed curved top.

Opening act was The Relatives, a gospel funk group who were formed by Reverend Gean West in 1970 in Dallas. West’s gravelly voice leads the four white-suited singers with another white suited man on congas. Backing the group is Charles Ray Mitchell on lead guitar with other musicians on rhythm guitar, electric bass, drums, and Hammond organ. There is a lot of soul dancing and funk hollering with a bit of psychedelic soul guitar added in. Their signature song, “Don’t Let Me Fall,” which was released in 1971, has an opening that sounds just like “London Calling.” Or should I say “London Calling”’s beginning sounds like “Don’t Let Me Fall”?

The original band broke up in 1980 but is touring again. They recently returned from Australia – for some of the members it was their first ride on an airplane. And it was also their first time in NYC. This is not one of those acts that most people haven’t heard of but they’ve influenced many others. Most people haven’t heard of them, period. But their mix of funk, soul, and gospel is timeless and as fresh now as it was when they were doing it and no one was listening.

Mavis Staples’ band plays for a bit until she makes her entrance. The Rick Holmstrom Trio with Holmstrom on lead guitar, Jeff Turmes on bass, and Stephen Hodges on drums lays down the R&B, soul, gospel groove and on backing vocals is Chavonne Morris (who took a verse for “The Weight” and gave me chills), Donny Gerrard (who also beautifully took a verse or two), and Yvonne Staples. Mavis (who is much shorter than I expected) came out and everyone sang an a cappella version of “I Am His, And He is Mine.” For the end of the “The Weight” and for the last song Mavis lifted up her arms and shook them violently as the band played/sang up to the heavens.

Her voice failed a few times – missed lines and spoken instead of sung – but the power was always there. There were many times when that familiar voice gave me chills and I wanted to cry out in joy. She took a break in the middle of the set and the band soloed brilliantly.

Since Mavis is a long-time civil rights activist we got politics with our gospel. She sang Pops Staples’ “Freedom Highway” and Randy Newman’s “My Country.” Before the latter she said there was a party that she wasn’t invited to. And they’re serving Kool-Aid and passing it off as tea.

She also sang her (only!) Grammy award winning song, “You’re Not Alone” written and produced by Jeff Tweedy (Wilco).

Mavis ended the night with “I’ll Take You There” and the audience stood and sang along and clapped and wished the night would never end.

By Carene Lydia Lopez