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Mavis Staples - Live in London Music Album Reviews

Ten years after her last live record, Live in London feels like a valedictory statement.

Arriving roughly ten years after Mavis Staples’ last live album—and not to mention just a few months shy of her 80th birthday—Live in London can’t help but feel a bit like a valedictory statement. Recorded over two July 2018 nights at the Union Chapel, Live in London caps a decade where Staples seemed to be a presence in pop culture in a way she hadn’t been since at least the 1970s, when the Staple Singers were scoring number one hits with some regularity. Hit singles weren’t in the cards for Staples in the 2010s, but that didn’t mean she rested on her laurels. Signing with Anti- in 2007, she cut We’ll Never Turn Back with roots maven Ry Cooder at the helm, then proceeded to make a series of records with indie rock stalwarts, singing songs by Nick Cave and Merrill Garbus while Jeff Tweedy and M. Ward sat behind the mixing board.

Live in London deliberately dodges a few of her signatures—“I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself,” the Staple Singers enduring crossover hits of the early ’70s are nowhere to be found—to focus on the four records Staples made after We’ll Never Turn Back. The journey begins with the Tweedy-produced You Are Not Alone—the 2011 Grammy Winner for Best Americana Album—and the end of the road is 2017’s If All I Was Was Black, the album she was plugging while on tour in the summer of 2018.

Skewing the songbook in this fashion does help showcase Staples as a continually evolving working artist, placing the emphasis on music over the message. This is a bit of shift for the singer, who has been at the forefront of melding music and politics since the 1960s and whose passion for justice has been undiminished in recent years. If All I Was Was Black felt pointed when released in the thick of the Trump years, while Live: Hope At the Hideout, her 2008 live album, was designed as a celebration built upon the unspoken sentiment that Barack Obama’s impending election was a culmination of the civil rights movement.

Politics never surface on Live in London. Perhaps “Slippery People” could be read an allusion to the slithery creatures populating the Trump White House, but that’s a stretch: the Staple Singers covered the David Byrne song in 1984, when Speaking in Tongues was still fresh. In this context, surrounded by songs written by Tweedy, Justin Vernon and Ben Harper, “Slippery People” acts as a reminder that Mavis Staples never resisted incorporating the latest rock or pop fashions into her gospel-inflected soul. Sometimes, this openness has been camouflaged by Staples power as a singer: she can’t help but be the focus, sometimes overshadowing her source material.

The studio albums Staples recorded for Anti- over-compensated for this slight problem by favoring handsome productions where any sense of grit was carefully sanded away; they weren’t devoid of passion, yet they were often tidy. By its very nature, a concert album corrects this problem: even if some tweaks happened in the mix, the source material is rawer than what happened in the studio. Indeed, it’s striking that the band supporting Staples on Live in London is essentially the same one who recorded If All I Was Was Black, since they sound rough and ready here, with Rick Holmstrom’s guitar sometimes growling so loud, it seems impolite.

Hearing songs from Staples’ recent studio albums performed with such earthy gusto is something of a mild revelation. It places these songs firmly within the continuum that stretches back to Mavis’ earliest recordings, since they’re all delivered with the same lean, weathered groove. These arrangements may help give definition to a tune as fragile as Vernon’s “Dedicated” but, more than anything, casting these recent songs in the same light as “Touch a Hand” or “Let’s Do It Again”—a number one hit for the Staple Singers back in 1975, but rarely remembered as well as “Respect Yourself"”—helps shift the focus to how Mavis still sounds mighty as ever.

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