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Mavis Staples Live: Hope At the Hideout

Mavis Staples

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Album Review

The occasion for recording this live album was Mavis Staples' return visit to Chicago's legendary Hideout in June of 2008, on a Monday night. (It is not necessarily the best evening for club-going or concert-attending audiences.) Accompanied by a basic rock trio and three backing vocalists, Staples dug deep into her repertoire; many of the songs came from We'll Never Turn Back, a collection of songs from civil rights era rock, gospel, and Staple Singers material. Recorded and released by Anti, it is a warts-and-all performance. The sound is pristine, the energy from the stage is kinetic from the second tune forward, and the audience participation is rather sparse until the end, but it's obvious they get it. The set commences with Stephen Stills' "For What It's Worth." To be honest, it's not the best version Staples has ever delivered, but it's adequate and gives the crowd something to hold on to. She digs a little deeper on "Eyes on the Prize," and is full bore by the album's third cut, "Down in Mississippi." Staples is in fine voice, but to be fair it is not the voice of her younger years. She is 69 years old, and some of the high notes are no longer available to her, but what she lacks in her legendary range she more than makes up for in both grit and passion. Her transposition to lower keys suits her well and she uses it to maximum effect — check out her growling version of "Wade in the Water," with a call and response from her backing vocalists. Rick Holmstrom's Telecaster guitar lines are drenched in warm bluesed-out reverb throughout the set, but here they help put the song over the top.

In fact, the trio here — completed by bassist Jeff Turmes on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums — feels like some lost incarnation of Creedence Clearwater Revival at their most spooky and meandering. The groove is constant and hypnotic, and Staples draws from them, putting the song across better than she has on any album. If this music were played in churches this way, they'd all be full. Other performances are starker, relying as much on Holmstrom's guitar as they do on Staples' voice, such as "Waiting for My Child" and a smoldering, funky version of "This Little Light of Mine," which is all rhythm. The reading of her father Pop Staples' "Why Am I Treated So Bad" is fully supported by the handclapping crowd and her backing chorus, and its subterranean blues, though slow and purposeful, is full of determination. "Freedom Highway" is the most uptempo thing here, walking a line between gritty soul and roots rock. Staples offers a long rambling intro to "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," but it's worth the wait. She explains that it's the first song her father ever taught her how to sing; the arrangement sticks close to his, but the voice is all Mavis, and she and the chorus dig into it like they were trying to defeat death itself. Ultimately, though this set has a few rough spots — you had to be there to get the full power and rough-hewn majesty of it all — it's a better offering than listeners had any right to expect, and Mavis Staples more than keeps up her end of the bargain. It is at once a celebratory and inspiring recording.

Biography

Born: 10 July 1939 in Chicago, IL

Genre: R&B/Soul

Years Active: '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Born in 1939 in Chicago, Mavis Staples achieved wide recognition as lead singer for the Staple Singers. She first recorded solo for Stax subsidiary Volt in 1969. Subsequent efforts included a Curtis Mayfield-produced soundtrack on Curtom, a disappointing nod to disco for Warner in 1979, a misguided stab at electro-pop with Holland-Dozier-Holland in 1984, and an uneven album for Paisley Park. Staples has a rich contralto voice that has neither the range of Aretha Franklin nor the power of Patti LaBelle....
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Mavis Staples Live: Hope At the Hideout, Mavis Staples
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