Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives / Mavis Staples – Damrosch Park Bandshell (New York, NY)
The pairing of Marty Stuart and Mavis Staples at the Roots of American Music Festival at Lincoln Center made for a sweet Sunday night service. During her opening set, Staples invited Stuart to join her on the first song Pops Staples taught his children, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”. Staples introduced Stuart as Pops’ “godson,” but truth be told, the country star from Philadelphia, Mississippi, didn’t know of the Staple Singers until he saw them perform with The Band in 1978’s The Last Waltz film. No matter, for when Stuart stayed onstage to trade verses with Mavis on “The Weight”, the daughter playfully poked the “son” as he drew reverberating, Pops-like licks from his Telecaster.
Mavis currently tours with her sister Yvonne on background vocals and a bass-guitar-drums trio that provides more competence than inspiration. But her voice remains a glory to behold, with throaty growls that can stretch ‘huh’ into two syllables, and turn an aside like “Good God” into musical poetry.
Souls’ Chapel, the terrific 2005 country-gospel disc by Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives, was the logical hook behind the concert’s twin bill, but Stuart’s show also touched upon his other recent releases, with country-rock drawn from Badlands, and bluegrass selections that echoed Live At The Ryman. The show also affirmed that the Superlatives (Kenny Vaughan on guitar, Harry Stinson on drums, and Brian Glenn on bass) are a world-class band with vocal and instrumental chops to spare.
Looking sharp in dark, western-styled suits (Stuart’s fancier duds featured silver bangles on the seams of his black slacks), they played country, rock and gospel with equal flair. Guitarist Vaughan offered flashy leads but was also quick to fall into tandem licks with Stuart, who mostly played the famous B-bender Telecaster that once belonged to Clarence White.
Stuart remains the group’s true virtuoso, his solos steeped in soul. The traditional “In The Pines” was arguably the evening’s highlight, with aching, three-part vocal harmonies, and a Stuart solo that slipped from country twang to bluesy release.
The show stumbled when Rosie Flores joined Stuart and company for some rather generic rockabilly, but reignited when Staples returned for “Move Along Train”, a Staple Singers classic included on Souls’ Chapel. On “Uncloudy Day”, another tune from her famous family’s repertoire, Mavis shared a single microphone with Stuart and Stinson. “We had church tonight,” she affirmed with a joyful chuckle before bidding a farewell that prompted the departure of many of her fans. (Truth be told, this free concert was the kind of musically logical pairing that defies commercial logic, and a show that perhaps could only have been presented by a cultural institution.)
Coincidentally, that’s when Stuart brought out his mandolin for a lengthy solo instrumental that was both impressive and indulgent. Stuart errs when he substitutes slickness and showboating for sincerity, which is why his mandolin sounded much sweeter when the Superlatives joined him for an acoustic “Working On A Building”.
The show closed with a blast of rocking rhythm guitars on “Now That’s Country”, which emphasized that these days, a Marty party includes a taste of darn near everything under the Americana sun.