Mavis Staples at the Dakota in February

Star Tribune photo by Jeff Wheeler


It was the last show for Mavis Staples in 2010 and she was in good spirits – very good spirits -- on Sunday at the jam-packed Cedar Cultural Center.
The Rock Hall of Famer was talkative (as always), enthusiastic (as always) and generous (onstage for 110 minutes). Of course, she was spiritual, bringing church to the West Bank on a Sunday night. 
Staples drew heavily from this year’s rootsy/gospelly album “You Are Not Alone,” produced by indie-rock god Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. Backed by five vocalists, she opened a cappella with “Wonderful Savior” from the new album.
Throughout the long evening, Mavis lifted her sandpaper voice in praise of the Lord, often using the lyrics of a song as spoken post-song testimony. At 71, she may not reach her high notes anymore but there was so much passion, personality and power in her deep, roaring voice (not to mention her guttural laugh). She also showed subtlety, especially with her soft voice on the haunting “You Are Not Alone.”
Staples turned every song into a spiritual, whether it was one or not. She infused so much gospel fervor into “The Weight” that you would have sworn that it came from a hymnal, not from a Canadian rock group known as the Band. Even the mid-1960s protest song “Freedom Highway” echoed with devout righteousness and sanctified pleading.
Fans of various ages seemed to worship at Staples’ feet, urging her to run for governor. The Chicago resident said, “Somebody told me last night to run for mayor. You would never get me into that dirty work. Well, I might think about it. What’s that little lady’s name?” A concertgoer shouted “Sarah Palin.”
“If she can...,” Mavis declared. “She’s never been to college either. I better do what I know how to do. I can inspire y’all better that way.”
Inspire, she did indeed with her singing. Highlights included the slow Southern gospel “Losing You” (a Randy Newman song), the Rev. Gary Davis’ rousing “I  Belong to the Band” and the spirited “The Weight.” It was a strikingly different set list from the one Staples offered in February at a memorable show at the Dakota Jazz Club. (Read my Dakota review.)
Nearly one hour into Sunday’s performance, Staples took a breather and sat down and allowed her excellent backup trio to play a series of instrumentals, featuring the tasty guitar work of Rick Holmstrom (he must love John Fogerty) and Jeff Turmes.
While the music was hot, Staples seemed to be losing a little steam. Personally, I would have preferred to hear terrific new backup singer Vicki Randle, best known for her work with Kevin Eubanks’ band on “The Tonight Show,” sing a number or two.
Staples bounced back with her 1972 classic “I’ll Take You There” (though I’ve heard her do longer, more impassioned versions at the Dakota) and the encore of the low-down, soulful “On My Way,” during which she unleashed her scatting growl.
There was no “Respect Yourself,” the other big hit by the Staple Singers, but all 600 people left the Cedar with overwhelming respect for the enduringly wondrous Mavis Staples.       

Opening act Roma di Luna, the local ensemble, impressed many ears that were hearing their delightful soul-folk for the first time.

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