One of the more heartwarming phenomena to occur over the past decade has been successful young musicians honoring their legacy by producing records for the elders who have unwittingly influenced them. Some of these pairings have been odd bedfellows indeed, such as Jack White of Detroit’s White Stripes producing the coal miner’s daughter from Kentucky, Loretta Lynn, or Rick Rubin of thrash and hip-hop music fame with Johnny Cash, and folkie Joe Henry providing a big boost to the renaissance of soul man Solomon Burke.
You can add ex-Uncle Tupelo and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s work with the gospel-soul singer Mavis Staples to that list. Their collaboration, “You Are Not Alone,” released in September, is an excellent primer on the 71-year old singer, who will forever be known as the animating voice behind The Staples Singers’ enduring classic, “I’ll Take You There.” Here is the single.
And here is a stupendous version from the TV show “Night Music,” featuring Mavis with Dr. John and scatting with a plucking bassist.
Producer Tweedy understands that his job is to showcase the prismatic colors in Staples’ multigenre career, from down-home gospel to wrought-iron blues, from chooglin’ pop rock to gently bestirred soul. He contributes two songs to the project, including the companionable title track, a paean to loyalty that provides a steadfast presence without dramatic declarations.
The gospel songs are superb, far from understated but sung with the notion that rapture is the end of a stage in the process, that discovery and affirmation are equally vital to the testimony. Most of these tunes are traditionals — “Wonderful Savior,” “Creep Along Moses,” “In Christ There Is No East or West” — but Allen Toussaint’s “Last Train” blends blues and gospel and “We’re Gonna Make It” melds topical political concerns in with religious faith the way Mavis and her Staples family did so righteously during the civil-rights movement.
Of course the great thing about a concert is that the catalog is wide open. As we’re still not sure we’re going to dig out of the greatest recession since the Depression, and income disparity continues to widen into Banana Republic levels, Mavis has a satchel of songs that will alternately salve your pain and resurrect the memory of when dignified protest was both a necessary and effective course of action. Show up on Sunday, and she’ll take you there.
Here is Mavis singing “Wonderful Savior” and “Only The Lord Knows” at Lollapalooza this summer.
Here she is playing “You’re Not Alone” with Tweedy at the same gig.
Mavis Staples at the Cedar Cultural Center, Sunday at 8 p.m.; tickets $35 in advance, $40 day of show.