There are a lot of reasons Mavis Staples is a memorable presence. There's the incredible energy she brings to the stage, despite her diminutive size. There's the breast-beating arm motions, or her lyrical punctuations of "Good God!" that would make James Brown proud. There's her constant need to make sure her audiences are left with a positive vibe; at Red Butte Garden Friday night, she promised to make the crowd so happy that the feeling would last at least six months after the show. And she's probably right.
More than any of those things, though, what makes Staples a legend is that voice. It's not the kind of instrument that a listener would hear it and say, "Wow, she could sing ANYTHING." No, it's the kind of bass-y, bold thing that works perfectly with her genres of choice: soul, gospel and R&B.
That voice was on full display Friday as she led a stellar band and three backing singers through a nine-song set opening for blues- man Buddy Guy. The bill made for an interesting dichotomy, with Staples' religious songs leading into Guy's more lascivious material, like the scorching "Hoochie Coochie Man." But it made some sense given that both performers--each a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame--know how to work a crowd.
I was there specifically for Staples, though; a little of Guy's scorched-earth guitar workouts goes a long way with me. But Staples' set was perfectly satisfying, relying heavily on tunes from her Grammy-winning 2010 release You Are Not Alone, produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy.
The album is a mix of covers, Tweedy compositions and traditional gospel tunes, and the songs sounded great in the cozy confines of Red Butte Garden. "Wrote a Song for Everyone," a John Fogerty tune, came early on, leading into an excellent take of "Creep Along Moses." The title track of the album featured some of Staples' best vocals of the night, an inspirational song with a touch of heartache written by Tweedy.
Along the way, she veered away from her latest album. A performance of "The Weight" by The Band inspired Staples to call out each of that band's members' names when she was done: "Robbie Robertson! Levon Helm!" and so on. Her band was excellent throughout, particularly guitarist Rick Holmstrom, who found space to tear into some seriously aggressive riffing between Staples' moments at center stage.
Staples' set ended in a blast of "Freedom Highway," "I Belong to the Band" and arguably her most recognizable hit, The Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There," which got the crowd collectively to its feet to pay tribute to the tiny lady with a huge voice and even bigger personality.
Great stuff, even if it was brief, and even with the instrumental interlude mid-set that gave Staples a chance to catch her breath for the remainder of the high-altitude show. The woman turns 72 in a couple of weeks--she deserves to kick it whenever she likes.