Mavis Staples Took a Two-Night Victory Lap with Nick Lowe at The Kessler

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Mavis Staples
With Nick Lowe
Kessler Theater, Dallas
Friday and Saturday, March 4 and 5, 2016

Mavis Staples is showing no signs of slowing down. With 66 years into a legendary career, the gospel and soul icon celebrated the release of her first-ever feature length documentary and 15th solo album with a sold-out, two-night stand at The Kessler Theater over the weekend. But Staples didn't need to lean on her accolades, or even her incredible backing band. Her voice is just as strong as ever.

Staples landed in Dallas as part of a victory lap tour. Last month, her documentary, Mavis!, aired on HBO. In February, she also released Livin’ On a High Note, a great collection of songs produced by indie rock star M. Ward. Staples has influenced artists of many generations and genres over the years and her new album is a testament to that. An impressive stable of artists like Nick Cave, Justin Vernon, tUnE-yArds and Neko Case collaborated with Staples on her new songs.

It was very fitting for the show Saturday night to be kicked off with the opening track from Livin’ On a High Note, “Take Us Back,” written by Benjamin Booker. “I got help from all the people who love me,” Staples sang. And everyone loves her, especially that ravenous Kessler crowd, who gave standing ovations after almost every song.

From there, well, Staples covered a Talking Heads song, “Slippery People.” Hearing, “You’d best believe this thing is real” coming from Staples' voice gives an extra punch. It was an interesting choice and a hint of more surprises to come. 
Next up was a wonderful rendition of “Respect Yourself,” the smash hit released by Stax in 1971. The song is one of the most recognizable from the Staple Singers, the classic family group of gospel and soul singers. It was with her family in Chicago that Staples first started performing in 1950, initially in churches before appearing on a weekly radio show and later scoring hit records.

Staples continued with “Love and Trust,” another new track written by Ben Harper, and the format seemed to be established: new songs, surprising covers and old songs. “Friendship” was one of the last songs written by her late father, Pops Staples. It was a moving rendition of a song that is sentimental and soothing.

“Freedom Highway” was another highlight. The song is the title track for a 1965 album the Staple Singers recorded in a church, one of the greatest live gospel albums ever recorded. “Freedom Highway” really showcased how great Staples' current group is, as the musicians captured that incredible bluesy gospel sound, the two backup singers did a pretty good impression of a choir, and Staples, of course, led. Everyone in the house clapped along.

Staples threw out another surprise by covering Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” before delivering some particularly powerful vocals for her latest single, “High Note,” a song written with Valerie June. Then Staples covered Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” before closing the show with an inevitable rendition of the Staple Singers’ classic, “I’ll Take You There.” She returned for a quick encore, covering “The Weight” by the Band, and everyone left the place with a smile on his or her face.
Earlier in the evening, British power-pop legend Nick Lowe kicked things off with a memorable solo acoustic set. The writer of such '70s hits as "Jesus of Cool," "Labour of Lust" and "Cruel to Be Kind," plus a selection of classic songs for other artists including the Pretenders, the Damned and Elvis Costello, his work has worn to perfection and he made for a stellar combination with Staples.

Lowe’s songs are funny, and as a seasoned performer, he knows how to make sure the humor isn’t lost on anyone. His songs often feature protagonists who aren’t the nicest people in the world, but they are disarmingly honest. Lowe has a knack for making great songwriting seem simple using lyrics that could almost pass for casual conversation.

He also deployed hilarious banter between songs that could hold its own with that of Robin Hitchcock. But Lowe really knows how to perform and these acoustic renditions offered another perspective on just how great his songs are and how well they’ve aged. He had an enormous reaction from the crowd and everyone sang along to “Cruel to Be Kind” toward the end of the set.

Like Staples later in the night, Lowe left the stage to a standing ovation and was even convinced to return for an encore, so he returned to perform another classic Costello tune, “Alison,” which he produced back in 1977.

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