Mavis Staples – Earl Wynn Theatre (Carrboro, NC)
Take away the history and the presence, and it definitely looks rote on paper. You know, focus on the career high points, play a couple from the latest record, let the band have the spotlight for a few minutes, and engage in a little localized chitchat with the crowd. However, it’s highly unlikely that Mavis Staples, the crown jewel of the third annual American Roots Series at Carrboro’s ArtsCenter, has ever done anything in a way that could be described as just going through the motions.
That realization took all of 30 seconds after Staples took the stage, resplendent and legendary in a black, appliqued pantsuit below a wide smile, a wise chuckle, and, of course, that soul-dream voice. First up was “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)”, one of several crossover hits from the Staple Singers’ time at Stax and a fine choice to set the evening’s tone. After a touching recollection of much-missed patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples that led into the story of how the family band formed, Staples and her backing foursome (including sister Yvonne on backup vocals) soared into the first song Pops ever taught the kids, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”.
A crackling version of The Band’s “The Weight” kept things at a high level, and by the time Staples was finished accepting the load, she could have turned to her compatriots and called for “Seasons In The Sun” and had 300 people hanging on every word. Instead came two songs from 2004’s Have A Little Faith, the title track and “God Is Not Sleeping” — the latter dedicated to the victims of Katrina and proving to be much more of a powerhouse live than on record. (“That song can make me hurt myself,” offered Staples, breaking the post-song hush.)
Two more from the Staple Singers canon followed, “Respect Yourself” and “The Ghetto”, after which Mavis and Yvonne quite charmingly pulled up chairs stage left and let the fellas in the band do their thing. A nonpainful ten minutes later, it was time for “I’ll Take You There”; if anyone showed up knowing only one song, this was it. Yeah, it’s been soundtracked and oldies-radioed nearly to death, but thanks to the most rubbery of grooves, it still possesses the power to move, in several senses of the word.
The night ended on a warm note when the encore of “Touch A Hand, Make A Friend” segued into “Reach Out And Touch (Somebody’s Hand”), as Mavis Staples again rose above the routine. Even something as Tony Orlando as shaking hands with the crowd, which Staples made a point of doing after asking for permission to remove her uncomfortable high heels, becomes much more than that when the right person is making the connection.