Mavis Staples With James Hall The Kessler Theater, Dallas Sunday, March 8, 2015
Mavis Staples could make you believe in anything. It may be God, or it may be your fellow man. It may be something radical, like the notion that God is really a woman, or even that we (the collective we, the American we) really may yet overcome. On Sunday night at The Kessler Theater, on the 50th anniversary of the Freedom March in Selma, Alabama and on the predictably under-recognized (and short) National Women's Day, just about anything seemed possible so long as Staples was on stage.
More than most, Staples is the Real Deal. She's been there, she's done that, and she emerged from it all with her pride and a glowing smile still fully intact. As she declared last night during a fiery performance of "Freedom Highway," Staples was even on that historic march to Selma all those years ago. "And I'm still here," she announced, "I'm still fighting." Every moment of her 80-minute performance oozed with the same conviction, the same passion, the same power to inspire.
It's hard to leave a show like this one feeling anything other than uplifted -- which is just how Staples would want it to be. Now 75 years old, her energy and enthusiasm for performing (and above all else, she performs) is a sight to behold. With the exception of a 10-minute interlude where she took a break from stage and left her band to jam, Staples was up and about, bantering with the audience, dancing in place and pantomiming with her band mates.
Sure, there were times where she had to sit down and take a drink of water, but even then Staples poked fun at herself. And she was nothing short of a charming storyteller, whether she was talking about having met Mayor Mike Rawlings and Senator Royce West (both of whom were in attendance last night), about her grandmother explaining that when you moan "the devil don't know what you're saying," or recalling how her father, Pop Staples, had written "Freedom Highway" after taking part in the Selma march. She even dropped a joke about Meghan Trainor that had the whole house in stitches.
There was another joke, too, about Kanye West, but it was one that proved far more revealing. Staples poked fun at him in her lighthearted way, claiming, "I think he's a teddy bear. Just let him come up against me!" Then, after a perfectly timed pause, she added, "I'd go the other way."
But particularly given the historic occasion, it was salient to consider that most of the reverent, respectful crowd in the sold-out Oak Cliff theater were white. (Choosing James Hall as an opener was a reminder of the crossover appeal she's received from the likes of Jeff Tweedy and Robbie Roberston.) No doubt, the historic and social import of Staples' songs wasn't lost on them, but there was an irony that rang through it all just the same. After all these years, some of the Staples Singers' great civil rights manifestos have perhaps lost some of their edge, having retired into being familiar, feel-good anthems.
Staples, too (unlike West), has always made a fine ambassador, a good-natured, good-humored face for progress. But she's a product of another time, too, when being respectable was necessary in the fight to simply be treated as human. West, for all of his egotism, is the product of another time, when selling millions of records and achieving insane wealth can still relegate one's opinions to those of a crass black man. His is a rage at the injustices that still remain, something that's far less palatable to most than something like "I'll Take You There" -- but something that Staples herself clearly has respect for.
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But even those dusty old Staples Singers songs can express that same rage today when she digs deep and belts them out on stage. Through all the positivity of the music, Staples' voice can shutter and growl with the wear of decades of struggle and hardship, giving new meaning (and renewing the old ones) to words that the devil could never understand.
Yes, Staples is a product of her time, and she may not have a lot of it left herself, but her struggles are still being fought, even if the fight has taken on new forms. To see her is to understand why her time has mattered, and to believe that better times might still lie ahead.
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