April 20, 2012
Just try being glum around Mavis Staples. She radiates the kind of joy that can’t help but put smiles on those around her, or so it seemed when she spread her brand of message music Friday night.
“Message music” was a label commonly given to the work of The Staple Singers, the family act that Staples anchored with her late father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples. The family’s music morphed from classic soul gospel into a medium addressing social concerns that comported with their faith. It was a change made when Pops wanted to support the work of Martin Luther King Jr. The new music brought The Staple Singers a run of influential, funky R&B and pop crossovers from the ’60s to the ’80s. Staples continues to carry on the tradition of mingling Christian sentiments into a broader array of topics stemming from her beliefs, only now she’s gone back to a more stripped-down sound reminiscent of the earliest recordings she made with her dad and siblings.
There were times on Friday night when Staples, her three-piece band and a trio of background singers nearly turned the Potawatomi Bingo Casino’s theater into a Northern Lights Tabernacle. An opening a capella piece and the fiercely slithering “Creep Along Moses” numbered among the songs most explicitly drawn from biblical understanding. The same concern for salvation, of one sort or another, informs songs from Staples’ recent solo albums, including “We’re Gonna Make It” and “You Are Not Alone.” Even if Levon Helm hadn’t died the day before, “The Weight” likely would have figured into her set, as she and her family’s performance of that song of empathy with The Band is a highlight of The Last Waltz, a movie chronicling that group’s final concert.
Just as her current work reflects and expands upon her heritage thematically, Staples’ history was likewise reflected in her aesthetic. Not only was her older sister, Yvonne, among the background vocalists, guitarist Rick Holmstrom occasionally imbued his ax with the kind of eerie tremolo that defined Pops’ approach to the instrument.
The only time her positive vibes turned angry was on “This Is My Country.”
Over its instrumental bridge she recited a spoken rhyme in which she chided those who would question President Obama’s U.S. citizenship and made a veiled reference to Tea Party activists mixing up poisoned Kool-Aid, going so far as to allege that they’d like to revert the nation back to a time before the civil rights movement. The ire was short-lived, though, and by evening’s end she was belting one of The Staple Singers’ most enduring and oft-remade hits, “I’ll Take You There,” as she shook the hands of those who made their way forward to the lip of the stage to physically touch the lady who has long touched their lives with her sunny disposition and husky, evocative singing.
Opener Shemekia Copeland is young enough to be Staples’ daughter, but, like the engaging blues purveyor she is, the gal has stories to tell. “If you want really good material for songs,” she offered, “just date men.” Copeland’s life as both a single person and a married woman informed many of her 10 selections. She prefaced the headliner’s spiritual and sociopolitical interests on “Big Brand New Religion,” an impression of her grandmother’s church, and “Ghetto Child,” a rendering of a tune first recorded by her late bluesman father, Johnny Copeland. She sounded as if she may have just been warming up before she had to make way for Staples.