Life is peachy for Mavis Staples right now but, like all great blues singers, you can believe in the trouble she’s seen every time she opens her mouth.
Mavis Staples: One True Vine
Star rating: * * * *
She first came to prominence as lead singer with the Staple Singers, the family group led by her beloved father “Pops” Staples, whose hits Respect Yourself and If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) became civil rights anthems in the 1970s, but went into an extended period of mourning after Pops died in 2000.
Salvation came in the unlikely form of Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy who has become to Staples what Rick Rubin was to Johnny Cash – a careful curator who has helped Staples reconnect to her gospel and rhythm’n’blues roots while introducing her to new but kindred territory.
Following the Grammy-winning You Are Not Alone, One True Vine is their second collaborative collection of covers and originals and it’s a low-key dispatch which makes full but sensitive use of the ache and empathy in Staples’ voice. Unlike a lot of church singers who invest their delivery with a testifying fire, Staples follows her father’s edict to “make it plain” and abides by Tweedy’s preference for her lower register.
In turn, he writes beautifully for that range, contributing three originals to One True Vine – the healing balm of the title track, sonorous bluesy brooder Every Step, with its sombre intimation of good news, and Jesus Wept, a spare but eloquent ballad on which Staples sounds careworn in contrast to the soothing female backing chorus.
Alongside loving readings of a trio of old gospel numbers – the slowburn soul of What Are They Doing In Heaven Today, the rhythmic call-and-response number Sow Good Seeds and Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus), a sprightly twist on the old blues trope – Tweedy has shrewdly sourced a handful of songs which Staples takes to like a natural, including Low’s modern southern devotional The Holy Ghost, Nick Lowe’s light and breezy Far Celestial Shore and Funkadelic’s Can You Get To That, guest starring the fabulous bass vocals of Donny Gerrard.
Staples also honours her pledge to record at least one of her father’s songs on every album she releases, selecting the stealthily funky black pride number I Like The Things About Me for a prime showcase of her ability to say it loud without needing to shout.