As a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, Kennedy Centre Honoree and with seventy years of performing under her belt Mavis Staples has in my opinion well and truly reached ‘National Treasure’ status in the United States. She is also one of the few remaining living links to the Civil Rights Movement, and a period when culture, politics and social activism collided to great effect.
In recent years Staples’ has found herself introduced to a whole new generation of listeners and fans (myself included) thanks to her collaborations with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and a whole host of contemporary musicians, including Irish singer-songwriter Hozier. The collaboration with Tweedy has been particularly fruitful, with Tweedy producing three of the five critically acclaimed albums that Staples has released following her signing with Anti- back in 2007. It is from this period that the songs on Live in London are drawn from.
Live in London is an album, unsurprisingly, steeped within the gospel tradition. It also draws a line between the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s and the present day. This is seen mostly clearly on “No Time For Cryin’”, which connects the image of the “motherless child” from the gospel tradition with the modern plight of refugees and asylum seekers. “No Time For Cryin’”, like much of the material that Staples recorded with her sister and father, Pops Staples, during the height of the Civil Rights movement is a call for action and a reminder that however far we’ve come that “we’ve got work to do”.
Whilst songs like “No Time For Cryin’” are a call to action, others offer reassurance and support. “You Are Not Alone”, for example, appears about midway through the recording, is the musical equivalent of a reassuring hug from a loved one. “We’re Gonna Make It”, one of the album’s final tracks, also offers a welcome message of positivity.
One thing that strikes me about this album is the practically palpable sense of joy that pervades it. Staples clearly seems to take great pleasure at being on stage, and performing for her fans. At 79 years old, there seems to be no real sense of any particular desire on her part to slow down any, and certainly her voice has in no way diminished. Rather on Live in London Staples shows that even after seventy years of performing hers is still a voice of astonishing power and warmth.
There is a lot of love about this album. Staples has surrounded herself with quality personnel, there is nothing particularly showy about the way they go about their work, but they certainly bring that added touch of quality to the performance. Unfortunately, I’ve not had the chance to see Staples live yet. Something has always managed to get in the way, so for now Live in London is the closest I’ve gotten and it does not disappoint in the slightest.
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Mavis Staples’ new album Live in London is released today through Anti-. Staples’ will be in Australia in April for Bluesfest at Byron Bay from April 18th-20th. You can also find her online on Facebook and Instagram