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Written by Stanfield Gray
Photograph by Chris Strong
Mercy, can she still bring it. In her 62nd year as a performer, Mavis Staples turned the Gaillard Auditorium into a revival last night, conjuring the ghosts of her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Holy Spirit.
As a member of the “congregation,” I was deeply moved by the depth of experience, energy, and soul Ms. Staples brought to each number. Highlights included “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” written in honor of the Little Rock Nine, and “March Up Freedom’s Highway,” composed in tribute to the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery marches by Pops while travelling with MLK.
Banter between songs included a call for the best shrimp and grits in town; nods to Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who produced her Grammy-winning collection You’re Not Alone; and a literal cry out for “Levon!” in honor of the late Levon Helm. Naturally, Staples followed by performing “The Weight,” a classic by The Band. “He’s not with us tonight,” said Staples, “but he’s not far away – we’ll see him in the sweet bye and bye.”
The barebones ensemble included the fantastic Rick Holmstrom on guitar, who performed with both tasteful restraint and melodic power, as needed; dynamic timekeeper, Stephen Hodges, on drums; and, the solid bass accompaniment of Jeff Turmes, who served the crowd a delicious helping of “Summertime” as an instrumental on slide guitar. Back up singers included Staples’ marvelous 76 year-old sister Yvonne, the amazing Donny Gerrard, and high-energy vocalist of The Tonight Show Band, Vicki Randle.
Staples let us know that Charleston made her feel “awfully special” and was a beautiful town full of beautiful people. She also made it clear that she did not appreciate those who disrespect the President by doubting he's a legal resident. “I ain’t never going back to the back of bus,” testified Ms. Staples, a declaration we accepted as Gospel.