Take Us There: Mavis Staples Live in Asheville
When you think about the music culture of Asheville, North Carolina, the image in your head probably isn’t a fro-hawked, nose-pierced black woman who can rip on the electric guitar and who, along with her band, pulls together a sound akin to what might happen if Meshell Ndegeocello fronted The Revolution. Nonetheless, Lyric (a.k.a. Leeda Jones) is one of the most beloved local musicians in town.
She started her career near Pack Square, where all the buskers go, in a town full of buskers. Usually, on that corner of Biltmore Avenue and Patton, you’ll find a traditional-style bluegrass outfit playing Dead covers or a bunch of white street kids absolutely wailing on some old-time tunes from further up those mountains. A couple of years ago, you might also see Lyric with her crack funk and soul band, her father on bass, rocking their way through covers by Aretha Franklin and Tracy Chapman.
But this night, she took the stage to open for the great Mavis Staples, opening with her song “Hard Work” — a groovy, in-the-pocket funk song about earning your way. In the ensuing 45 minutes, she moved through a slew of new original songs about finding peace, love, and trust, working hard, and feeling good. She tackled Carole King’s “You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman,” Aretha Franklin-style, and owned her way through Prince’s “Purple Rain” with the kind of authority that most artists strive for when covering such iconic tunes. With the addition of local rapper Dominion, Lyric’s funk chops have sharpened. With any luck (and probably also some more hard work), the band might just break out of this little mountain town. They’ve earned it.
But it was Staples who filled the room this night, and the appreciative crowd was overjoyed by the time she took the stage around 9:30.
At 77, Staples remains a force of nature. Her voice still bounces between a smooth, heart-grasping gospel wallop and the growling funk she inherited from her Pops. She stomps and wails and claps her hands with thunderous energy, working the stage like someone half her age might just try to do.
As the night unfolded, Staples delivered a slew of tunes from her long and storied career, focusing especially on her most recent release, Living on a High Note, giving credit where it was due to the artists who gave her the songs: Neko Case, Ben Harper, Valerie June, and others. In so doing, Staples acknowledged her place in music history, acknowledged her unique gift for tearing through a song so the light can come in. She acknowledged that many in the audience might be bruised in the wake of not only the election but the world in general, promising that she’s in the room to remind us how to feel good. “I don’t know how long it’ll last,” she joked, “but we’re gonna make you feel good now.”
During a timely and soul-renewing turn on “Wade in the Water,” she vamped on the vocals, growling out:
One of these mornings, and it won’t be long
You’re gonna look for Mavis and I’ll be gone
The crowd wailed, overcome with recent losses — too many of them — but Staples knew what she was doing. She cut us off, didn’t let the thought hang. There was a song to finish. She gave us just enough room to peer at the unavoidable nature of mortality before pulling us back to the lyric.
It’s a lyric that has been sung in churches throughout the South for generations; one that was repurposed a half-century ago, when her band the Staple Singers provided a significant part of the soundtrack for a civil rights struggle. When Mavis Staples sings “Wade in the Water,” the historical significance of the song is packed into every pocket of the groove. It shows its face in every low note, when her smooth voice gives way to a groan.
She was talking about the imminence of mortality, not as a warning but simply an acknowledgement, a part of the journey, a step to take before another step. And, like another one of her classic songs calls upon us to do (“March each and every day”), Staples used the music to carry us forward, walking to the water, calling us to wade.