When I first saw the announcement that Mavis Staples was coming to Montreal, I thought it was a mistake. She had to be at least 80, and how the hell did Pop Montreal convince this legendary rock ‘n’ roll Hall of Fame (1999) and Blues Hall of Fame (2017) inductee to perform at the Rialto?
I bought two tickets right away. I wasn’t going to wait around to see if I would be reviewing the show. There were two other names on the bill that I had never heard of, but I figured if Mavis allowed them to open for her they must be good.
Since the seating was general admission, I got to the venue at seven sharp to get a good spot and couldn’t help but notice the outlandish crowd. I was at the Cheech and Chong show only a few days earlier, so I have the right to say that it was a pretty bizarre mixture of folk. I felt as if I was at some kind of geriatric hippie festival as the majority of the people were over 50 and mostly white. (Or as my friend put it; an arts and crafts fair in Vermont.)
The show began around 8:00 with Hanorah quietly emerging onto the stage like an apparition. Dressed in a long, white flowing gown and holding an electric guitar, she immediately subdued the crowd with her soothing voice.
The Montreal singer, who was a quarter-finalist on La Voix 5, gave off an Alicia Keys vibe with her sultry sweet vocals. And her heartbreaking lyrical style reminded me of Carole King and I especially enjoyed her bluesy funk “Long Road”
Next up was Clerel Djamen, another Montrealer who continued to warm up the crowd with his soft and sweet sound. If you’ve ever enjoyed laying in a hammock, on a hot and sunny beach while a gentle breeze blew into your face as you took small sips of a Mojito, then Clerel is your man.
(“Blackstone” was my favourite track).
His EP entitled “Songs From Under a Guava Tree” was actually inspired by a real guava tree from his childhood home in Douala, Cameroon. “The title reflects the singer’s aspiration to create music that is nutritious, healing and entertaining to the casual listener.” (Bandcamp)
At a little after nine, the woman everyone was waiting for, was finally introduced and escorted onto the stage. Clapping her hands and blowing kisses to the crowd she immediately lifted the energy of the room and everyone felt it. Her smile radiated across the stage as a beacon of light and love and Miss Mavis got the party started with “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me).” As if she even had to ask.
We all got on our feet and began to clap and sing along. It was exactly what I was hoping for. “For What It’s Worth” and “The Weight” got the most response from the audience and Mavis was visibly pleased with our cooperation. She joked that we sounded so great, she was going to take us on tour with her. She would supply the buses, but she said she couldn’t promise to feed us.
She ended the show with “I’ll Take You There” and she delivered it as though she was singing it for the very first time. That in itself is a skill if you consider that she has been singing that very song since 1972.
Her career began in 1950 when she joined her family’s band The Staple Singers. Focusing on gospel music, they were known as “God’s Greatest Hitmakers”. Her “Pops” had a close friendship with Martin Luther King, Jr., so they became the spiritual and musical voices of the civil rights movement.
They covered contemporary pop hits with positive messages, including Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, Stephen Stills’ and “For What It’s Worth”.
“I’m the messenger,” Mavis Staples says on the eve of her 80th birthday. “That’s my job—it has been for my whole life—and I can’t just give up while the struggle’s still alive. We’ve got more work to do, so I’m going to keep on getting stronger and keep on delivering my message every single day.”
If that’s not impressive, Mavis Staples has worked with Prince, Win Butler, Bob Dylan, Hozier and many more. Bob Dylan even asked her to marry him but she turned him down to focus on her career. Her latest album “We Get By”, produced by multi-Grammy award winner, Ben Harper was released in May of this year. He made sure to use her band because of their special chemistry. And he was right on point because their performance had that tight but relaxed vibe that was a pleasure to witness live.
“There’s so much soul and Muscle Shoals in that band. When you have a guitar player like Rick Holmstrom, a bass player like Jeff Turmes, a drummer like Stephen Hodges, and a vocalist like Donny Gerrard all supporting the voice of the century, why would you ever want to go outside of that foundation?” Ben Harper
When I got home, my son asked me if the concert was any good. I told him it was incredible and showed him my video clip of Mavis closing the show with “I’ll Take You There.”
“Isn’t she fed up of singing that same old song for over 50 years?”
I asked him if he had the ability to invoke complete joy in others, to lift their spirits and create positive energy, would he not use that power?
“I’m just so grateful that I’m still here. God has kept me here. I feel like God is not through with me yet“. Mavis Staples interview with Ken Connors on CJAD
“POP Montreal International Music Festival is a non-profit community organization that supports independent art forms, showcasing emerging and celebrated artistic talents worldwide. Now entering its 18th year, POP Montreal’s main event is a five-day-long festival of music and art, which takes place in early fall, presenting more than 450 bands.”
- If You’re Ready
- Take Us Back
- Slippery People
- Who Told You That?
- For What It’s Worth
- Respect Yourself
- Touch a Hand, Make a Friend
- Can You Get To That?
- The Weight
- I’ll Take You There
Review – Annette Aghazarian