Sunday, November 16, 2008

CD Review - "Mavis Staples Live - Hope At The Hideout"

By Mark Dalton

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the historic victory of our President-elect, Barack Obama, than to run right out and pick up a copy of Mavis Staples’ new live CD, "Hope at the Hideout." Mavis Staples and her family were themselves an important part of the civil rights movement in this country; marching with Dr. King, singing at many of the important events of the struggle, writing, recording and performing songs that lifted the spirits and stiffened the resolve of the thousands of Americans who repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way to further the cause of freedom and equality for all our people. This CD is a live, impassioned performance of classic songs of that struggle, interspersed with Mavis’ commentary and stories of this amazing history. This performance clearly demonstrates that, at age 69, she has lost none of her power as a singer and performer – and none of the determination, intelligence and righteous anger that carried the Staples Singers through half a century of relentless touring from the little wooden churches of the rural south, to the top of the hit parade in the '70s with songs like "I’ll Take You There."

This CD was recorded in the classic, spare Staples Singers style - Only a trio of musicians, a trio of backup singers (including surviving sister Yvonne Staples), and Mavis out front, one of the most amazing voices in the history of American music.

I have to offer big kudos to guitarist Rick Holmstrom for his superlative, tremolo-laden performance here. I knew Rick was a fine guitarist and a powerful bluesman, but Pops Staples’ shoes as a guitarist are huge and hard to fill. Pops’ guitar playing came right out of the Delta, and really encompassed the entire history of the Blues as a unique, subtle, soulful finger-style foundation to all of the Staples’ music. Holmstrom does an amazing job of providing that foundation here – capturing the complex spirit of Pops’ music without ever sounding like just a copy of his work – Holmstrom rather inhabits this music, while bringing his own ideas and sense of creativity to the songs as they unfold.

The set opens up with a reworking of the old Buffalo Springfield tune "For What It’s Worth" – sounding perfectly ominous, leading up to a presidential election that many feared wouldn’t even be allowed to happen, and if it did, would surely be at risk of being stolen. But this sort of paranoia was always what the Staples Singers struggled to overcome, and the very next song is "Eyes on the Prize." The problem and the solution. Oppression, and struggle. This mix continues throughout the performance with songs like "Down in Mississippi," "Waiting for My Child" and "Why Am I Treated So Bad" talking about life’s struggles, and anthems like "We Shall Not Be Moved" and my all time favorite "Freedom Highway" ("...walk, on freedom highway, walk, each and every day… made up my mind, that I won’t turn around…"). By the end of performance she has the crowd on their feet, singing along, filled with spirit!

Mavis Staples has been getting me out of bed, helping me do things I need to get done ever since I got my first Staples Singers ’45 at the age of 14 ("Will the Circle Be Unbroken" - also on this CD - with her singing lead on the anguished flip side, "Don’t Drive Me Away"). I told her about finding that record (in Nebraska) when I talked to her backstage at Bumbershoot a couple years ago. "Honey I was just a child when I recorded that song!" She said this with a far away look in her eye, and leaned back into the couch we were sitting on together and sang 'Oh Lord… don’t drive…. your child…. away.'

One of the best moments of my life. Get this CD. You’ll see what I mean.

Originally from Nebraska, Mark Dalton moved to Seattle in the early '70s. He is an accomplished bassist and stalwart bluesman. He currently plays with Chris Stevens' Surf Monkeys. Photo by Ronda Lee.

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