First of all, the name is perfect. Mavis Staples has just the right amount of rhythmic sass and assonance to denote a soulful lady reared in the church and re-baptized in the marches and sit-ins that were the signal events of the civil-rights struggle nearly 50 years ago.
Even today, the call-and-response chug-a-lug of the Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” has an irresistible sway, and the denunciation of racists for the hollowness that fuels their hatred (“Take the sheet off your face, boy, it’s a brand new day/Respect yourself/Respect yourself”) on “Respect Yourself” has the power to thrill through its wisdom. These songs were not flashbacks, but delivered in the moment, in the forging fire of history, and it gave Mavis and all the members of her Staples Singers family enormous cache. She claims that Bob Dylan once asked her father Pops for her hand in marriage, and both Curtis Mayfield and Prince successfully encouraged Mavis to record for their custom record labels, Curtom and Paisley Park.
The church and the street has always been the source of her inspiration, which is why her best material of the past 20 years remains her 1996 tribute to her mentor Mahalia Jackson, “Spirituals & Gospels,” and the revisitation of the Civil Rights-era anthems on her 2007 release, “We’ll Never Turn Back,” including “We Shall Not Be Moved,” and “Eyes on the Prize.”
Now 71, Mavis has lost some of the depth in her tone, replaced by a raspy growl when she reaches down to ladle some blues from her soul. But she has been blessed to find a band that has that spooky, swampy, funky roots mix, like vintage Creedence Clearwater Revival, and, as you might expect, her stage presence is magnificent.
Here is the Mavis Staples MySpace page, which contains a number of songs from last year’s live album, “Hope at the Hideout,” that should closely approximate what will go down at the Dakota tonight and tomorrow night.
Here is a rendition of “Freedom Highway” from the Strawberry Music Festival in 2008.
And, here, because everybody needs more soulful, stained glass-filtered sunshine in their lives, is the 1972 Staples Singers’ single, “I’ll Take You There.”
Mavis Staples at the Dakota Jazz Club + Restaurant, tonight and Thursday nights at 7 p.m.; tickets $40-$65.