Mavis Staples & Rick LA Holmstrom: Can Anybody Loan Me $10,0000??
September 6, 2010. ” I want you to know that the Staple Singers have been going for 60 years and we ain’t done yet” proclaimed Mavis Staples at the 20 year old Sausalito Art Festival in Marin County California.This year Mavis Staples was sharing the lineup at this wealthy Bay Area enclave with an eclectic group of 60’s, 70’s 80’s and 90’s pop icons including The Fixx, The Bangles, Pablo Cruise, The Tubes, Dave Mason, The Sons of Champlin and the Jefferson Starship – groups who have added younger singers, appeared with musicians for hire, and various appendages to play the hits and mine nostalgia for a few bucks
When I saw that Mavis Staples was appearing at the Festival, my first thought was that this is something I’ve got to see. The prior weekend I had flown to Portland to cover the Bob Dylan/John Mellancamp show and now I had the chance to see the rock and roll legend who had passed on marrying Bob Dylan at one point in her career. She recently responded to SF Chronicle reporter, Aiden Vaziri, “It was my fault that we didn’t get married. If we’d married and had children would we have our own Dylan-Staple singers?”
I had no idea what to expect from a 70 year old woman who is referred to as a “Rock and Roll Hall of Famer and a soul gospel legend,” who delivers “wall to wall joy” Would it be nostalgia or could it be that Mavis is now at yet another peak in her sixty year career? Recent reviews have raved about the Ry Cooder produced concept album We’ll Never Turn Back” which focused on the gospel songs of the civil rights movement plus a few originals from Cooder. That 2007 album was follwed by “Live at the Hideout.” The reviews for this album were equally effusive. stating that the lucky few who attened this intimate performance witnessed “the leading lady of protest at her best.”
The current buzz regarding Mavis has to do with her new album coming out in mid September entitled “You Are Not Alone.” It is said to stake out surprising new territory for Staples as a result of being paired with musician Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame. “You Are Not Alone” includes traditional gospel songs as well as new songs contributed by Tweedy, Randy Newman, Allen Toussaint, John Fogerty, Reverand Gary Davis and Little Milton. Mavis described the result of these sessions as follows “I wanted to make an album where every song had meaning..where every song told a story and would lift you up and give you a reason to get up in the morning. And I know it’s going to feel really good singing these songs on stage”
And guess what? Mavis wasn’t lying. The Sausalito Art Festival is a curious little event each year. During the Sixties, Marin County epitomized the “I Want it All Now” crowd..a community of wealthy liberal, doctors, lawyers and new age spiritualists who flocked to concerts and expensive restaurants in desinger hippie cloths flown in from Carnaby Street in England. They mouthed and practiced the peace and love lifestyle of the Hight Ashbury hippies but put on their coats and ties come each Monday morning. Now that nobody wears coats and ties, what is hip in the year 2010 is all blended together in an expensive expression of self indulgence and the old timers turn out each year to purchase Leroy Nieman look alike water colors and bronze statues of seagulls and elves. Booths with photography sculptures, water colors and oils range anywhere from $5,000 to $10o,000 for a mailbox coverd in travel decals. I arrived fifteen minutes into Mavis Staples set and she was killing the crowd wersion of the Weight which was a minor hit for her years ago. The crowd was a mixture of very Caucasian Marinites in their thirties, forties and fifties, some wearing their bike garb, Tommy Bahama shirts and sporting sixties hairsyles with the bulk of the hair color leaning towards the silver range. One couple sitting next to me read the New York Times through the entire set and couldn’t tell you what Mavis Staples was wearing let alone how many people were in her band.
I have to admit that when you hear Mavis Staples sing it brings back a boatload of memories. Nobody sounds like Mavis Staples – its an era defining voice. She still has the ability at 70 to get an audience on their feet quicker than most twenty-somethings with ten Marshall amps. She can still hit all the notes and pulls out her signature rasp to move you with the spirit. Along the way she talked about musicians and politicians that she’s been associated with, Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson and the Band, Ry Cooder, The Talking Heads, and many others. She stopped at one point and said “This must be an outstanding day, we have two incredible stars in our midst : Maria Muldaur and Taj Mahal.” Months earlier Bonnie Raitt had turned up as a small jazz nightclub in Oakland to perform with her.
She mixed her old songs with her new. I was surprised that she didn’t sing “Respect Yourself” probably her best known song, but did sing as an encore “I’ll take You There.” She also mixed in the old familiar gospel songs such as “We Shall Not Be Moved” (which mentioned the welfare line that nobody in Marin County has ever seen let alone considered in their lives), “This Little Light”, and Turn Me Around” . She also sang some songs from her new album as well which were hightlights of the set; the Tweedy songs “Only the Lord Knows” and “We Are Not Alone”, as well as a barn burning freight train of a sing by Alan Toussaint entitled “Last Trian”.
I noticed something at this concert that is missing from every review I’ve ever read about Mavis Staples. Mavis Staples is the star of the show but her apprentice in each appearance is the guitar player and this dates back to her beginnings in the Staple Singers appearing with her father, Roebuck “Pop” Staples who at one time early on was the star of the show. She has gone on to perform with guitar greats like Robbie Robertson, Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy and on Sunday I mentioned to my friend Mark, that I thought her backup band was being lead by the great under – appreicated Rick La Holmstrom. Holmstrom played the signature tremelo parts made famous by Pops Staples while also digging into his own innovative blues guitar riffs. I’ve follwed Holmstrom for years dating back to his first instrumental album “Look Out” where he played explosie T-Bone Walker solos. Rick Holmstrom is right up there with Duke Robillard and Ronnie Earl when it comes to channeling T-Bone Walker. He then veered into experimental riffs that mixed jump blues with hip hop and computer loops – a sound that was totally unique. I found it to be a mesmerizing adventuous experiment (often these things turn out horrible) but I also think that poor sales drove Rick back to making more traditional rootsy blues albums.
There are a lot of amazing blues guitar players but very few have a shot at being the next Stevie Ray Vaughn. The would be pretenders to Vaughn are the Kenny Wayne Shepherds and the Jonny Langs of the world. One of the great blues guitarists from the Bay Area and a good friend is Bobby Murray. Bobby figured it out quick that one way to get known was to back up well know blues stars who made their name on the chittlin circut. In the Bay Area these blues shouters included Frankie Lee, Sonny Rhodes and Lady Bianca, not to mention, John Lee Hooker. Bobby went on to become Etta James guitar player in her touring band and the rest has been a successful history for Bobby. In much the same way, Rick Holmstrom has become the leader of Mavis Staples band and punctuates all her songs with signature licks that bring out the emotion and build to volcanic peaks and brings the songs back down to earth again.
The rest of the band is comprised of drummer Stephen Hodges, bassist Jeff Turmes, and backup singers Donny Gerrard (who took some solos), Chavonne Morris and her younger sister Yvonne Staples. The sound that they turn out isn’t what you expect – a horn driven soul show or a funky bar band playing the blues. Its more of their own thing, a dirty back alley rock-n-soul sound which drives behind Mavis and compliments her approach building on words, keeping the message relevant and immediate rather than fading into being just another backup band.
The temperatures were pushing 100 degrees on Sunday without a breath of air coming off the Bay and it drove me into finding shade after standing for ten minutes. I can’t imagine how hot it was on the stage for a vibrant powerhouse singer pushing 70 years of age with no shelter over her head moving from one song to the next with no sign of slowing down or running out of breath. In the middle of the set Mavis took a seat back in the shade while Holmstrom stepped forward with the bass player and drummer to tear it up for ten minutes. His large Fender amp went out half way through the first instumental and he calmly walked over and plugged into a smaller amp and continued to build to crescendos before inviting Mavis back up for for the final few songs in the set.
Mavis finished up her set and cleared the stage for the Jefferson Starship. I have been blessed the past two weeks to see possibly the two greatest living civil rights, protest songwriters still out on the road making extraordinary new interesting music in their sunset years. Yes, you could argue that Bruce Springsteen should be in this small fraternity but Bruce hasn’t been out there for sixty years and still coming up with new takes on a very old genre. I came across an article that said that “Mavis is a truly great singer simultaneously haunted and inspired by her past. We are fortunate that both Dylan and Staples never gave into the popular music conventions of the day, have followed their own muse and continue to turn out music that matters. Who knows what would have happened if these two had agreed to join forces in matrimony.