Music review: Mavis Staples, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Amid a set of striking quality from veteran vocalist Mavis Staples, it was the unexpected flourishes which raised the biggest smiles, writes David Pollock

Mavis Staples PIC: Myriam Santos
Mavis Staples PIC: Myriam Santos

Mavis Staples, Usher Hall, Edinburgh ****

“Greetings from the windy city,” said Mavis Staples. “Chicago, Illinois – the home of the downhome blues.” As she reeled off the names of the greats from her home city – Buddy Guy, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, with a strong attempt at the Wolf’s own howl – it was like stepping into a time machine. Staples was already a teenager and performing with her family’s band the Staple Singers when the eldest of these musicians made their first key recordings of the 1950s.

A decade later, the Staples’ songs of religious struggle became emblematic of the Civil Rights movement, and Bob Dylan, Mavis revealed decades later, proposed to her. Her new album Carry Me Home is a collection of music made with her friend, the late Levon Helm, drummer in Dylan’s sometime backing group The Band.

Staples is 82 years old now, the last surviving member of the Staples Singers, and the necessary mitigations of going on tour at that age were apparent. The set was short, a little over an hour, and a chair was on hand, not that she needed it much. Two backing singers with younger voices offered vocal support, but she didn’t need that much either.

Her voice is still filled with tender power, and the songs were well-backed by guitarist Rick Holstrom, bassist Gregory Boaz and drummer Steve Mugalian. Around her, the other voices recreated the Staples sound on classics including Respect Yourself, Will the Circle Remain Unbroken and I’ll Take You There, as well as less familiar songs like Hand Writing on the Wall from the Helm album.

To hear this woman sing these songs is a profound but anticipated privilege. Amid a set of striking quality, though, the unexpected flourishes raised the biggest smiles, with covers of Funkadelic’s Can I Get to That and Talking Heads’ Slippery People fitting her voice perfectly.

“My family’s been taking you there for 74 years and I ain't tired yet,” she announced. “You ain't seen the last of me.” We very much hope not.