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REVIEW: Mavis Staples at the Subs

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Nick Burford c/o SLAP magazine

The text accepting my offer of accompanying me to tonight’s soulful show was responded to immediately; the necessary train tickets and the room at the Clothiers public house were booked within fifteen minutes. Why? The night’s performer woven into Sub Rooms’ busy diary is important because this singer is cut from a very special cloth.

For those of us that grew up with Stax and Volt records, we know how important the name is in the Soul oeuvre. Notwithstanding the fact, our entertainment this evening has performed for President Obama and his family in the grand White House.   

image 8 | REVIEW: Mavis Staples at the Subs
Mavis Staples at the Subs Pic: Dave Dubell

I always appreciate it when a band makes a grand gesture; resplendent in pencil-thin suits, fitted waistcoats and fedoras the Rick Holmstrom trio had clearly made an effort for our special lady. Just like the Stax revues of the 60s, Holmstrom, bandleader and guitar-slinger set the mood: “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage: Mavis Staples.” The unconditional affection reserved for Miss Staples was palpable. The lady behind me captured the mood with her unbridled utterance…”Go on Mavis, you show them.”  

And “show them” is exactly what Mavis Staples undertook with aplomb over the next hour and twenty minutes. Her easy affinity with her band matched the flirtatious affinity with her audience: “Come on now we are going to have some fun. We are going to take you there.” At times Staples’ religious beliefs, steeped in her Gospel background, were at the forefront as she worked her adoring disciples from the virtual pulpit. Tonight was a marriage made in musical heaven. 

Staples has shown us her own mind over the years, as we recall, she turned down Bob Dylan’s kind offer. 

With the audience wedded in total complicity, Mavis Staples offered up a repertoire of the memorable and the contemporary. One enthusiastic commentator on Youtube proclaimed her voice: “…could make a cough sound soulful.” The voice, that voice presented “Respect Yourself” to a highly appreciative crowd. “I’ll Take You There” was delivered to those who were content to be taken along with the warm zephyr of Staples musical expression. David Byrne’s “Slippery People” – introduced by one of Staples comedic asides – was a joyous and intoxicating soul hybrid. All bestowed by a singer who refuses to conduct herself with any self-importance.               

 Remember, this is a Civil-rights activist who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.        

The word icon has become a predictable cliché over the years. Standing ovations have become commonplace as to be the norm; I was once given one for returning empty glasses to the bar. However, collectively we rose as one this evening to give Mavis Staples the approbation she deserved. This for me is the benchmark by which all ovations should be judged.

The foyer, front steps and square were full of people outside the Sub Rooms afterward, determined to simply stand and enthuse about what they had just experienced. For me, part of the litmus test was the custodian stood in the doorway saying good night, as he appeared particularly proud of the night’s event and rightly so: as tonight was spun from the rarest of silks. 

The Swilgate Scuttler

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