Mavis Staples: “Still Here”

Selma’s “living witness” marks anniversary at the Paramount

Mavis Staples: “Still Here”
by Gary Miller

Fifty years to the day after the pivotal first Selma march that helped galvanize the Civil Rights movement, Mavis Staples emerged on the Paramount Theatre stage Saturday night with a triumphant joyfulness.

Commemorating the anniversary and the Staples Singers impact in soundtracking the movement infused the show. Rather than reflecting on the harrowing struggle, the youngest of the five Staples – “Pops” (d. 2000), Cleotha (d. 2013), Pervis, Yvonne, and Mavis – reveled in the vision and victory.

Working through a scant dozen songs during the performance, with a break to let the stellar backing trio of the Rick Holmstrom Band jam, Staples proved a force of personality and charm throughout. The banter and stories between songs as she caught her breath, and the playful back and forth with the audience that slowly began to leave their seats to dance at the edge of the stage, testified as much to the 75-year-old singer’s consummate star power as the songs themselves.

Opening with “If You’re Ready,” a 1973 soul chart topper and Top 10 pop hit for the Staple Singers, then segueing into a funked-up cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” Staples’ voice retains its power but still leans heavily on back-up singers. Even so, delivery proved but one aspect of the whole. New tunes including “I Like the Things About Me,” from last year’s Jeff Tweedy-produced One True Vine, moved the crowd no less than familiar touchstones like “Respect Yourself,” especially the poignant “Holy Ghost.”

The highlight of the evening rolled in on the energy of “Freedom Highway,” Staples celebrating her father Roebuck’s anthem in relation to the Selma march, declaring at the end, “I was there, and I’m still here. I’m a living witness. And I’m still fighting. Fighting for hope; fighting for love; fighting for peace.”

Re-emerging after the band spotlight, the tiny powerhouse headliner unloaded a closing double-punch of “Do It Again” and “I’ll Take You There.” Her own career in rejuvenation behind a pair of recent albums, and the new release of Pops Staples’ final recordings (Don’t Lose This) and a documentary playing at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, Staples isn’t only a surviving witness, she’s living history.

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Mavis Staples, SXSW Music 2015

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