MAVIS STAPLES’ 85TH BIRTHDAY CONCERT REVIEW

Run the Jewels’ <i>RTJ4</i> Is Driving Music for a Cop Car on Fire
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“You ain’t gonna do it!”

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Mavis Staples was insistent, fired up, growling those words on stage at the YouTube Theater in Inglewood, CA last Thursday, her blue duster shaking around her tensed, compact body.

“I won’t let you!”

What she wasn’t going to do was, as the spiritual she was singing says, “let nobody turn me around.” And the you she was addressing were the forces of injustice, discrimination, intolerance, hatred and war.

As if there was any question.

Approaching 85, with next year marking 75 years since she started singing professionally, she’s nothing if not unstoppable, unturnable. That is what was being celebrated this night in an all-star birthday tribute concert, capped by a brief, powerful set by the honoree herself.

With Bonnie Raitt — “my little sister,” Staples called her — singing and playing slide guitar alongside her for this song, she took us back to her roots in gospel music and the civil rights movement in which she, her father “Pops” and siblings in the Staple Singers were prominent figures.

She’s the last of her singing family now, with brother Pervis having died in 2021. She’s also one of the last living links to the golden age of gospel and the righteous soul of the ‘60s and ‘70s and, most emphatically, to that struggle for justice.

Yet there were many sisters and brothers with her Thursday, her vast and strong musical and spiritual family crossing multiple generations and cultures.

Grace Potter (Credit: Taylor Hill)
Grace Potter (Credit: Taylor Hill)

For more than two hours leading up to her own set, a parade of stars honored her with songs and heartfelt testimonials: Trombone Shorty, Robert Randolph, Keb’ Mo’, the War and Treaty, Taj Mahal, Jeff Tweedy, Norah Jones, Michael McDonald, Grace Potter, Black Pumas, Nathaniel Rateliff, Jackson Browne, Raitt, Hozier, all backed by a vibrant band led by bassist Don Was and including Heartbreakers keyboardist Benmont Tench and the McCrary Sisters.

Peak moments were plentiful. The War and Treaty — married couple Michael and Tanya Trotter — shook the rafters with a feisty version of the Staple Singers’ 1972 hit “Respect Yourself.” Black Pumas sparkled with a deeply soulful pairing of their own humanity-embracing anthem “Colors” and the Staple Singers’ sly “Can You Get To That,” Eric Burton’s voice lifting the crowd to its feet. Raitt, a “surprise” unannounced guest, joined Browne for his “World in Motion,” which “Pops” had recorded on a solo album. Mahal, Keb’ Mo’, Trombone Shorty and steel guitar wizard Randolph teamed for a smoldering “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”

And one after another talked emotionally of the first times they’d heard Staples’ voice and of the inspiration, support and love she’d given, though Mahal had seniority bragging rights. “I was listening to her when I was 11 — and she was 14,” he said, before singing his version of “You’re Gonna Need Somebody On Your Bond,” in which he cited her by name in the lyrics way back in 1969.

At the other end of the timeline was Hozier, half a century younger than Staples, who offered his “Nina Cried Power” (the 2018 recording of which features Staples) and thanked her for her role in the civil rights movement here, which he said inspired a civil rights movement in his native Ireland.

And then: “If you’re ready, come go with me….”

Mavis herself, cooing at us, entreating us, leading us…. there… with the Staple Singers’ 1973 hit “If You’re Ready,” the first of the five songs in her featured set in which she parlayed her power with playfulness.

Tweedy, her Chicago pal, came out to duet on “You Are Not Alone,” the gorgeous song he wrote and produced for her in 2010, cracking each other up when Tweedy flubbed a word. Next was Chris Stapleton for her father’s “You’re My Friend,” wrapping her up in a burly bear-hug at the end.

Then, after Raitt’s turn, came the ever-transcendent “I’ll Take You There,” showcasing Staples’ own sharp, lean group of guitarist Rick Homlstrom, bassist Greg Boaz, drummer Steve Mugalian and singers Saundra Williams and Kelly Hogan, before everyone joined for the Band’s “The Weight,” a Staples signature since her family’s performance in The Last Waltz film. Even with the stars around her Thursday, she shined brightest.

No. Nobody’s going to turn her around.

“Gonna keep on a-walkin’, keep on a-talkin’, marchin’ up to freedom land.” she sang.

As if there was any question.

To see our running list of the top 100 greatest rock stars of all time, click here.