Passion and Preaching, Past and Present Combine on Mavis Staples’ ‘We Get By’
Mavis Staples does more than just get by. There’s no quit in her. At 80, she’s still a powerhouse, dominating the stage and the studio, her voice and her mission statement still as strong as ever.
Accompanied by Rick Holmstrom’s Pops-flavored guitar leads, Staples still knocks it out of the park every time she steps up to the mic, her sensual moans still straddling the line between passion and preaching.
But as much as Staples remains rooted in the past, she’s allowed her sound to move forward. Holmstrom is a versatile accompanist who seems to guess her destination before she begins her vocal journey, staying as close as family without getting in the way.
“Change” sustains the message the Stapleses have been espousing for decades: “What good is freedom if we haven’t learned to be free,” Staples asks as Holmstrom throws in ominous clangy chords that sound like shrapnel pinging off the studio walls.
Ben Harper produced We Get By and composed the songs, but Staples still makes ’em her own with her road-tested band. “Anytime” sounds like classic Staples, the throbbing bassline and slinky guitar lead recalling the Muscle Shoals sessions that produced the Staples’ classic Be Altitude: Respect Yourself, Mavis’ outro sounding as youthful and ebullient as her vocals from that 1972 session.
The title cut is a duet with Ben Harper, so close to the classic Staples formula that it brings tears to your eyes as Holmstrom emulates Pops’ glorious, shimmery chords with Mavis moaning as churchily as she did on “The Weight” over and around Harper’s Staples family-style vocal harmony. “That’s a winnah!” Mavis shouts as the song fades out.
“Sometimes” is classic Staples, like an escapee from a neglected family vault, unearthed and still vibrant, Holmstrom slingin’ Pops’ licks around like a soulful ghost.
On “One More Change to Make,” Mavis reassures us with gritty, gospel soul that it’s not quite time for her journey to be over: “Been holdin’ on too long to let go / Been runnin’ too hard to slow down / Believin’ too deep to not have faith.”
If Staples allows anybody to put words in her mouth these days, let it be Harper, who lets her express herself through her still glorious voice while he whispers in her ear. It’s a match made in heaven.