Mavis Staples ★★★★★
Melbourne Zoo, March 7
Higher power is a given when Mavis Staples sings. Faith in the Almighty is optional but the awesome weight of history, from her father’s cotton farm escape to Dr King’s march on Washington to Wattstax and beyond, rolls like thunder in her voice. At 80, she remains a living declaration of undeniable will and transcendence and we are barely worthy.
There’s something mystical in the funk, too. Her two backup-singers bring the gospel harmony to her bone-rattling holler and growl, but the compulsive momentum of her skeleton bass, drums and guitar trio defies belief. They dress like 1930s broom salesmen, smiling sweet as pie as they kick your door down.
The most unassuming megastar entrance in history delivered the promised “joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibration” almost instantly. The set that followed was evenly split between the Staple Singers’ ’70s soul classics — If You’re Ready, Respect Yourself, I’ll Take You There — and the tireless survivor’s new century renaissance.
Talking Heads’ Slippery People was an early highlight, its traditional call-and-response form as fitting as its theme of unstoppable progress in a world of strife. Staples’ new material, by the likes of Jeff Tweedy, Ben Harper and Ry Cooder, mines the inexhaustible vein of brother/sisterhood, compassion, strength in unity and the need, right now, for Change.
Between songs, she was hilariously adorable. Her “piggedy possum” spiel (she meant pygmy) will enter Melbourne Zoo legend. Inside the relentless euphoria of the funk, guitarist Rick Holmstrom’s solos climbed further, escalating levels of elation.
But above all, like the most melodious preacher you ever heard, Staples made sure every word cut through. Her commitment to each lyric hit like a fist on a pulpit. “Keep your eyes on the prize.” “No hatred will be tolerated.” And as long as she lives and breathes, “You are not alone”.