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Mavis Staples is a true veteran of Gospel and Soul, having been singing professionally for over 60 years. Her career began in 1950 as part of the Staples Singers with her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and her three siblings. In the mid-1960s this family band played a vital role in giving voice to the civil rights movement, and as a solo artist Mavis Staples continues to be relevant to this day. In the past three years alone, Staples performed at the Rally To Restore Sanity and/or Fear, the Grammy Awards as part of a Levon Helm tribute with artists like Mumford and Sons and Britney Howard of Alabama Shakes, and received honorary doctorates from both Berklee College of Music and Columbia College. She has also recorded multiple albums produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. The second of these albums, One True Vine, will be released on June 25, and at Non Comm she treated an audience of radio professionals and music lovers from across the country with a lively preview of some new songs.
Staples slowly walked onto the stage with assistance from a cane and the only other musician accompanying her: guitarist Rick Holmstrom. Soon after she and Holmstrom sat down they began their set with one of Staples’ new songs, “I Like the Things About Me.” It was a very bluesy piece that one could imagine Staples singing on a rickety front porch by the Mississippi Delta. Her uniquely low and slightly raspy vocals revealed a sense of maturity and wisdom that could only be acquired through many years of experience. This was especially evident in the following song “Far Celestial Shores,” another new One True Vine cut penned by Nick Lowe. With its lyrically pro-peace and anti-war imagery, Staples sang “Far Celestial Shores” as if it was a soft sermon meant to sooth weary souls like her own.
Later on, the evening hits its emotional peak with the title track of Staples’ previous album, You Are Not Alone. It was such an incredibly moving song that you could hear the heartbreak in Staples’ voice. Even Holmstrom’s guitar solo had evoked powerful emotions. You know the expression “make that guitar sing?” Well Holmstrom made it cry. Yet despite the song’s incredible sadness, it also portrayed a light at the end of the tunnel with reassuring repetitions of its title, “You Are Not Alone.”
After following up “You Are Not Alone” with the surprisingly provocative and upbeat “Let’s Do It Again,” Mavis Staples continued with the title track of One True Vine. “One True Vine” saw Staples switch into Gospel-mode once again through lyrical imagery that was illustrative even by her own high standards. It was no surprise that the song was followed by an applause so long that Staples was able to sneak in three consecutive sips of water before she was able to play her final song of the evening, “I’ll Take You There.” This classic hit proved to be a fitting close to her performance as the entire audience clapped to the beat and sang along to the chorus. It was clear that much of the audience continued to regard Staples as a national treasure, and she left them with little doubt that she will keep doing great work well into the future.