Mavis Staples at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center by Ramona Harper

The legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and its protest for peace and freedom are being kept alive by the legendary Mavis Staples.  In concert at the Kay Theatre of the University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on November 8, 2013, Mavis Staples rocked the house as she soulfully led us down freedom’s highway in a powerful and sacred testament of song. The performance was part of the university’s year-long “Civil War to Civil Rights: The Well-Being of a Nation” celebration. Mavis Staples has been on a mission to sing truth to power over the past 63 years and she’s still going strong. We left this spirited performance in “joy, happiness, inspiration and a positive vibration,” just like Mavis hoped we would.

Mavis Staples. Photo by Chris Strong.
Mavis Staples. Photo by Chris Strong.

Opening with the Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” Mavis and her six-piece ensemble of bass, guitar, drums, and three backing vocalists that included her sister, Yvonne, took us back to the protest era of the 60s. Many in the audience hadn’t even been born yet, but Mavis Staples’ folksy charm and soul-touching vocals have that kind of transcendent, universal, and timeless appeal.

Half of the songs in this 80-minute set were from Mavis’ newest album released   this year, One True Vine, dubbed “a gospel album for the 2st century.” It’s her second collaboration with Wilco leader and Producer Jeff Tweedy. Her first collaboration with Tweedy, You Are Not Alone, won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Americana Album.

Mavis Staples is pure Americana. From her gospel-singing roots in the church, to folk, Delta blues, R&B, pop, rock, and country, Mavis Staples is an American treasure of music with a positive message. And she performed all of them during this wonderful evening of song that left one theater-goer saying he was simply “overjoyed” to be in her presence.

“Can You Get To That,” from One True Vine, the second song of the evening,  was a mid-tempo folk-rock  tune that  brought in deep bass lead vocals from the incredible Donny Gerrard.

Raising black social consciousness was part of the legacy of the civil rights era. “I Like The Things About Me,” a song written by “Pops” Staples, of the Staple Singers, the consciousness-raising group where Mavis started out, was next. It was a lasting message about authenticity and keeping it real. The full ensemble added a sense of freedom’s urgency and the insistent, thumping tone of guitar, bass, percussion and drums featured prominently. Vicky Randle plays a mean tambourine.

Another presentation from Staples’ new album was “Holy Ghost”  – a song that spoke of “the invisible hands” of a spiritual presence. Rick Holstrum quietly strumming on guitar added a soothing element to this slow- moving, grace-filled piece.

Heavy on guitar, “Creep Along Moses” was a bluesy gospel chant and the perfect vehicle for Mavis to showcase that husky, raspy-rich voice that made her famous.

Mavis added wonderfully chatty comment all through the evening that I enjoyed almost as much as the music! For example, she talked about moaning when she sings (that also made her famous). Telling us about a conversation she had long ago with her grandma, she asked grandma why she moaned so much of the time. Grandma told Mavis that when you moan, “the devil don’t know what you talkin’ about.” And Mavis added, “So I started moaning too, because I didn’t want the devil in my business either!”  We loved it and fell in love with Mavis Staples too, moaning in affectionate laughter.

The multi-genred Mavis brought in “The Weight” an original country folk tune sung by The Band. This song was in memoriam to Levon Helm, famed drummer and singer for The Band, who passed last year. During the 70s, Mavis Staples collaborated with The Band. The splendiferous backing vocalist, Vicky Randle, performed lead solo on this one that can only be described as ‘heavenly.’ Vicky has the voice of an angel.

“Why Am I Treated So Bad,” Staples’ next offering, was a ballad written and sung as a tribute to honor the Little Rock Nine. Mavis told us this was one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s favorite songs that he often asked them to sing. The Staple Singers sang civil rights songs at protest rallies and right before Dr. King’s speeches, throughout the Movement.

Urging us to keep on marching until Dr. King’s dream is realized, Mavis led a determined and spirited “Freedom’s Highway,”a civil rights song written by “Pops” Staples to mark the Selma to Montgomery march. With strong backing vocals by Donny Gerrard, a Mississippi Delta sound deeply imparted the fervor of the civil rights era with Mavis in full shout to “keep on marching.”

“Keep Your Eyes on the Prize” was an insistent call to hold on to the dream and the hopeful determination that “we will all make it.” Jamming on tambourine and guitar, Vicky Randle and Jeff Turmes brought the tempo to a whirlwind.

A guitar-drum trio with Rick Holmstrum (who is also musical director for the group), Jeff Turmes, and Stephen Hodges on drums, was superb. Speaking to each other in guitar-speak, Rick and Jeff jammed to “Let My People Go” with a country-bop twang.  Rick made the guitar sound like a zither. Mavis has been known to say, “Rick reminds me of my Pops.  He’s got that soulful feeling.” The second slow, soulful instrumental solos were to “Have Mercy On Me,” wonderfully interpreted and masterfully played.

Now 74 years old and though showing signs of physical challenge, Mavis Staples  is vocally and spiritually strong, and from her performance this evening, getting even stronger. She’s living out her vow to “sing till I die.”

71uqH9p86LL._SL1425_ (1)In finale, taking us back down memory lane, Mavis Staples and ensemble blew it away with “I’ll Take You There.”  Mavis asked the audience for a little favor. She wanted us to do a “switcheroo” and have the audience chorus this beloved tune.  We gladly obliged in a rousing, participatory finish to an incredible evening In hand-clapping, tambourine-shaking, foot-stomping jubilation with Mavis scat-singing to guitar riffs, Mavis Staples brought the audience to its feet.  It was a well-earned standing ovation for a living legend.

Running Time:  Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Mavis Staples played November 8, 2013, at 8:00 p.m. at the Kay Theatre of the Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Maryland College Park –  University of Maryland Stadium Drive, in College Park, MD. For future events check their events calendar.

Mavis Staples website.

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Ramona Harper
Ramona Harper is a retired Foreign Service Officer (career diplomat) of the U.S. Department of State. While in the Foreign Service, her specialization was Public Diplomacy and Cultural Affairs. Her overseas postings were Senegal, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Panama and Germany where she presented American visual and performing artists on behalf of the U.S. Government. Before joining the Foreign Service, Ramona was a counselor and administrator in higher education. Her academic work includes a Master of Science degree in Counselor Education from Florida International University and a Master of Science degree from the National Defense University. Ramona is an avid theatergoer, dance enthusiast and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.


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