Mavis Staples takes the live album seriously. In a nearly 70-year recording career, she’s only released a few, and each one has meaning to it.
Freedom Highway, the 1965 Staple Singers live release, is a vital documentation of the civil rights movement and the Staples family’s role in it. In 2008, she put out the solo Live: Hope at the Hideout. Rooted in the gospel and protest-era tunes that made the Staple Singers America’s greatest gospel act and recorded in Mavis Staples’ hometown of Chicago, it was released on Nov. 4, 2008, the same day that Barack Obama stood on a Chicago stage as president-elect. Hope at the Hideout provided a bookend of sorts to Freedom Highway, highlighting what at the time felt like a culminating point in the struggle for equality.
The good feelings of and optimism inspired by that moment have since subsided. There was the birther movement meant to diminish the essential American-ness of the nation’s first black president, the spate of high-profile deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police, and the election of Donald Trump, making it abundantly clear that the struggle for fairness and justice still has a painfully long way to go.
Or as Staples sings on the politically charged “No Time for Cryin’,” the eighth track on Live in London, “We got work to do.” As that track and the rest of this excellent LP indicates, Staples remains just as committed to the cause today as she when she marched from Selma with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. over a half-century ago.
Recorded on her 79th birthday, Live in London draws largely from the material Staples has recorded with Jeff Tweedy during her late-career resurgence. Backed by her outstanding longtime touring band, Staples offers up inspiration, passion, and the raw, gravelly vocals that have placed her in the pantheon of all-time great singers and interpreters.
Staples is singing the gospel, even when it’s not the gospel per se. Her take on the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” is incendiary, drawing out the religiosity and Old Testament thunder alluded to in David Byrne’s lyrics. But while Staples is very much a gospel singer and that is at the core of so much of what she does, not everything is godly.
“Let’s Do It Again” is a Curtis Mayfield-penned number that Mavis has referred to as “the only secular song that the Staple Singers ever recorded.” It’s fine, but is very much secular in a too-smooth, clean-sounding, mid-’70s R&B ballad kind of way. The rendition on Live in London, however, is “secular” in the way that would make your pearl-clutching, church-going aunt blush.
Just as it takes more than one person to “do it again,” justice, a more equitable society, and even making it through tough times can’t really be achieved alone. The penultimate track, “We’re Gonna Make It,” a duet with backup singer and Pops Staples-soundalike Donny Gerrard, gets that point across. Staples does that by belting out:
If I have to carry around a sign
Sayin’ ‘Help the deaf, the dumb, and the blind’
I got your love and you know you got mine
We’re gonna make it, I know we will
They’re lyrics of optimism. But they’re also about resilience. Mavis Staples’ entire life and career could be summed up with the words “optimism” and “resilience.” It’s that spirit that drives Live in London and makes it a live album worth listening to.