In the Moment: ‘An Evening with Mavis Staples’ at the Kennedy Center Spring Gala

The 2018 Kennedy Center Spring Gala was a dandy one, celebrating the recipients of the third annual Kennedy Center Award for the Human Spirit. The award recipients, Gary Sinise and Eli and Edythe Broad, were treated to a smashing, full-tilt, shall I say, heavenly evening in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall courtesy of Mavis Staples.

Mavis Staples and the Spring Gala Concert cast. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri for the Kennedy Center.

How shall I describe the Staples concert in more detail?

Mavis Staples wrapped the audience in her protective cloak of gospel and rock music along with her effervescent personality. It was a rhapsodic, spiritually divine evening with the legendary Mavis Staples performing over a dozen musical numbers with several of her special friends and a supercharged five-member electric guitar and drum-centered band. Her special friends included Neko Case, Bruce Hornsby, and Alison Krauss. The band was led by guitarist Rick Holmstrom.

From where I was sitting, the full-house Kennedy Center Concert Hall audience was as appreciative and enthusiastic as your columnist. Mavis Staples was simply one fine pied-piper. She took the audience on a journey some may have lived, some knew by heart, and others were perhaps just getting to know.

Staples’s music selections were wide and deep. The selections began with songs from the decades of the Civil Rights Era of marches with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and the Freedom Riders. That was when Mavis Staples performed with the celebrated Staples Singers that included her late dad and her sisters. Selections included the “Freedom Highway” performed with Alison Krauss with this lyric “I can’t understand my friend, Why some folk think freedom, Was not designed for all.” And another selection,“It is Well With My Soul,” performed with Bruce Hornsby and Alison Krauss.

Mavis Staples. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri for the Kennedy Center.

Then it was on to notable Staples Singers pop hits such as 1972’s “Respect Yourself” with this opening lyric “If you disrespect anybody that you run in to, How in the world do you think anybody’s s’posed to respect you?” That was followed by “I’ll Take You There.” Well, wherever “there” was, Mavis Staples took me, with ease.

Some songs were of a different sort, as Mavis Staples crossed a great musical divide with ease into the soulfulness and rapture of The Band’s “The Weight,” with Neko Chase, taking on the rousing lyric “Take a load off Fanny, take a load for free. Take a load off Fanny, and you put the load right on me.” Staples also gave her own kind of light to the captivating enchantment of The Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.” (Note: The full song list is at the end of this column.)

The Kennedy Center Spring Gala Awards for the Human Spirit included introductory remarks from Kennedy Center Chairman David M. Rubenstein, and Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter. The honorees receiving The Kennedy Center Award for the Human Spirit were being recognized for their enduring impact on the advancement of arts and culture.

This year’s recipients for the Distinguished Philanthropist Human Spirit Award were Eli and Edythe Broad for their commitment to making the arts accessible to as many people as possible. Over the course of their lives, the Broads have invested more than $4 billion in causes “for the simple reason that they believe they have a moral obligation to work to make life better for people,” as noted in The Kennedy Center program.

The recipient of the Citizen Artist Human Spirit Award was Gary Sinise for his work including the establishment of the Gary Sinise Foundation. The Foundation’s mission “is to serve and honor our nation’s defenders, veterans, first responders, their families, and those in need by creating and supporting unique programs that entertain, educate, inspire, strengthen, and build communities,” as noted in The Kennedy Center program.

What more can I add? Only this. I, for one, simply surrendered to the evening as good people were recognized for doing good for others. The evening also reminded me of music’s power to be the soundtrack to anyone’s life. In this particular instance, Mavis Staples performed songs that were connected to one another by their search for love and peace through human kindness. And with faith that life will get better. For a couple of hours, all was right in the world. None of us are alone, to play off the title of one of the musical numbers performed.

Running time: About one hour and fifty minutes, with no intermission

The Kennedy Center’s Spring Gala was held on Sunday, May 6, 2018, at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For more information on upcoming shows at the Kennedy Center, go online.

Note: Musical Numbers:
1. “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)”
2. “Take Us Back”
3. “Slippery People”
4. “The Weight”
5. “Who Told You That”
6. “Respect Yourself”
7. “It is Well With My Soul”
8. “Freedom Highway”
9. “You Are Not Alone”
10. “Celestial Railroad”
11. “I’ll Take You There”
12. Encore: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

The Mavis Staples Band included:
Donny Gerrard, vocals
Stephen Hodges, drums
Rick Holmstrom, guitar
Vicki Randle, vocal
Jeff Turress, bass and second guitar


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