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Saturday, September 21, 2019

Mavis Staples Gives Inspiring Performance at Inaugural Rock Hall Honors Event

Posted By on Sat, Sep 21, 2019 at 9:27 AM

click to enlarge COURTESY OF THE ROCK HALL
  • Courtesy of the Rock Hall
It’s hard to imagine any other Rock Hall inductee embracing the new Rock Hall Honors award with more enthusiasm than 80-year-old singer showed last night at the State Theatre during a performance and awards ceremony.

“Blessed” and “honored” were just a couple of the adjectives she used at the start of the festive two-hour event that included appearances by fellow Inductee Jackson Browne, Dawes singer Taylor Goldsmith and singer-songwriter Valerie June.

click to enlarge COURTESY OF THE ROCK HALL
  • Courtesy of the Rock Hall
The night started with some remarks by Rock Hall President and CEO Greg Harris and with a screening of a short film that chronicled Staples’ remarkable career. Her career is filled with musical highlights. Her family group the Staple Singles scored a major hit with “Uncloudy Day” while Staples, who sang lead on the song, was still a senior in high school. In the ‘60s, the Staple Singers were on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement and often marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Popular rock acts such as Credence Clearwater Revival, the Band, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan took notice and acknowledged the Staple Singers' significance in some fashion or other. Staples would continue to have relevance and artists such as Prince, Jeff Tweedy and Ben Harper have contributed to her solo albums.

Her career’s past and present merged nicely during her 16-song set that included a wide range of material. She effortlessly dabbled in folk, rock, soul and gospel, all the while peppering the set with colorful anecdotes.

At one point, she launched into a particularly soulful cover of the Talking Heads’ tune “Slippery People” and at another, she clapped and swayed her hips while delivering the Buffalo Springfield classic “For What It's Worth” with a little from help from Goldsmith, who said Staples “epitomizes what it’s like to devout your whole life to music.”

“This is the first song we wrote when we joined the movement,” Staples said as she introduced "Freedom Highway." “We’d sing this song from morning to night, and we sang this song as we marched down the Southern highways with Dr. Martin Luther King." The song still packed a punch, especially since Staples said we needed to continue to take its sentiment to heart given the current political climate. “Respect Yourself” resonated deeply as Staples sang lines such as “Take the sheet off your face, boy, it's a brand new day” with a particular sense of urgency.

The lanky Browne arrived on stage to help Staples sing “We Get By,” the title track from her new album. The studio version features singer-guitarist Ben Harper, and Browne, whose voice still sounded sharp, made for a superb sub. Prior to singing with Staples, he admitted he’d been listening to her music since he was 15. “It’s meant the world to me, and to be in her presence is a joy,” he said.

A thick bass riff drove “Anytime,” another tune from We Get By, and Staples effectively alternated between singing and speaking throughout the track. Appropriately, a picture of her in a boxer’s pose was displayed on the video monitor behind the stage during her performance of the song. She has a toughness to her that came through in that particular track.

Looking resplendent in a glittering white dress, June joined Staples for a rendition of “Higher Note.” “You’ve inspired us all and thank for you for the joy you’ve given us through your music,” June said to Staples at the song’s start. Her upper register vocals made for a nice foil to Staples’ husky voice.

For “I’ll Take You There,” Staples encouraged fans to dance while she faced off with her bassist, and the song became a vigorous sing-along with the fans who appeared to fill about half to three-fourths of the State Theatre.

At that point, Harris returned to present Staples with a trophy and praised her, saying, “You are the soul of rock 'n’ roll.” Staples, her band and all the guest artists returned for a rousing rendition of “The Weight” that found Staples doing her signature soulful take on the line “you put the load right on me,” effectively putting a punctuation mark on a terrific performance.

While we thought it a bit odd that Staples had to do all the heavy lifting at an awards ceremony in her honor, she certainly didn't seem to mind. In fact, she appeared to relish the opportunity to perform in front of such an appreciative audience. 

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