Mavis Staples – If All I Was Was Black

Mavis Staples
Title: If All I Was Was Black

Artist: Mavis Staples

Label: Anti-Records

Formats: CD, LP, MP3

Release Date: November 17, 2017

 

 

Mavis Staples ushers in her eighth decade of singing truth with the call-to-compassion album If All I Was Was Black, her third collaborative project with songwriter, producer, and Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. Their first partnership in 2010, You Are Not Alone, won a Grammy Award for Best Americana album. Their second effort together, One True Vine, was a Grammy nominee. But If All I Was Was Black marks the first time Tweedy has composed an entire album of original songs for Mavis’ legendary voice and a nation she’s uniquely poised to address. As a witness to both past and ongoing American civil rights issues, Staples feels that, in many respects, “nothing has changed…we’re not loving one another the way we should.”

 

The album’s first track, “Little Bit,” firmly establishes this work as a conscious ode to the déjà vu mood gripping the nation of late. A driving guitar hook sets the tone immediately at the open, with Staples’ vocals rasping out an early downbeat of “This life surrounds you, guns are loaded. This kind of tension, hard not to notice.” Throughout the song, Mavis leads listeners through call-and-response vocals in a soundscape that recalls Sly & the Family Stone’s mix of joy and social criticism unfolding over a funk-edged rhythm section. Following is the title track, an upbeat, joyous groove that continues the album’s humanistic theme of understanding and acceptance. Directly addressing those who respond to someone’s race without seeing their shared humanity, Staples expertly croons, “If all I was was Black, don’t you want to know me more than that?”

Current events appear on the record obliquely, reflecting a commitment to a universal approach that shines a comparative light on the past by suggestively addressing today’s events. As Mavis explains, “We didn’t make the songs point to a specific person. If you follow the lyrics, it’s about yesterday and today.” “We Go High” borrows its chorus from Michelle Obama’s speech on the first night of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and the track “Build a Bridge” parses exactly which lives matter and how we can begin to talk about it.

Staples’ darker tone can be glimpsed in both “Who Told You That?” and “Try Harder.” Alluding to the frustration and realism of today, her telling line “There’s evil in the world, and there’s evil in me” signals harsh undercurrents of danger. Despite these elements, the mood ring on Mavis’ 2017 call-to-action is set to love, running through and over the occasional fury and pragmatism. The songs move like an ocean tide, ebbing and flowing, with Mavis countering the anger with an eye toward the work that is required to bring change. In the end, the answer lies in lifting each other up, Staples style. She’s not embracing the anxious hesitation of respectability politics but rather the possibilities of love.

Try Harder. Two small words, containing the biggest potential imaginable. To Mavis Staples, this phrase is key to substantial change if society will take her lead and lovingly follow through.

Reviewed by Amy Aiyegbusi

Benjamin Booker – Witness

Benjamin Booker Witness
Title: Witness

Artist: Benjamin Booker

Label: ATO Records

Formats: CD, MP3

Release date: June 2, 2017

 

 

Benjamin Booker’s appreciation for the historical social movements that helped shape the rock, gospel, and blues genres manifests in Witness, his second full album release following his self-titled debut in 2014. He calls attention to the modern day Black Lives Matter movement in his songwriting, connecting its relevance to the Civil Rights Movement.

Booker contemplates the possibility of death in his opening track “Right On,” an energetic soul rock song that feels like it could be played at an old-fashioned dance hall but with a heavier modern sound. Dramatically dropping in energy without losing its steady groove, “Motivation” juxtaposes the previous song, allowing listeners to focus their attention on reflections of a young Black man reasoning with his quotidian anxieties. From the sensuous aesthetic of “The Slow Drag Under” to the vintage blues pop of “Overtime,” Booker’s unmistakable vocal rasp takes center stage in a screaming whisper.

Perhaps the most meaningful feature that takes place on this album is Booker’s collaboration with the Civil Rights Movement’s musical icon Mavis Staples, who leads the gospel chorus on “Witness.” Booker wrote an artist statement about his attempt to escape the perpetual racism and violence he experienced at home and his process of writing this song during his retreat to Mexico:

I spent days in silence and eventually began to write again. I was almost entirely cut off from my home. Free from the news. Free from politics. Free from friends. What I felt was the temporary peace that can comes from looking away… It wasn’t until Trayvon Martin, a murder that took place about a hundred miles from where I went to college, and the subsequent increase in attention to black hate crimes over the next few years that I began to feel something else. Fear. Real fear. It was like every time I turned on the TV, there I was. DEAD ON THE NEWS… I knew then that there was no escape and I would have to confront the problem. This song, “Witness,” came out of this experience and the desire to do more than just watch.

YouTube Preview Image

Opening with an intertwining of orchestral strings reminiscent of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Booker’s performance of “Believe” may be one of the more memorable tracks on this album. It plays as a gentle and hopeful rise out of his darker experiences and fears. His lyrics promote optimism in the face of opposition: “I’ve got dreams I can touch, I’d give them everything to keep from going under.”

Witness represents a continuation of the fight for racial equality in the United States and will surely be an important contribution to the music history of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Mavis Staples I’ll Take You There – An All-Star Concert Celebration

Mavis
Title: Mavis Staples I’ll Take You There: An All-Star Concert Celebration

Artist: Various

Label: Blackbird Presents

Formats: CD, MP3, DVD

Release date: June 2, 2017

 

 

This exciting release is a star-studded celebration of Mavis Staples, honoring her 75th birthday and the soul music that shaped her career. Presented on both video and audio formats, this concert performance was recorded live at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago on November 19, 2014. Each song features a line-up of special guest musicians performing with Mavis and her All-Star Band directed by Grammy Award-winner Don Was. Accomplished country, soul, and R&B musicians such as the late Gregg Allman, Bonnie Raitt, Keb’ Mo, Emmylou Harris, and Aaron Neville take the stage alongside up-and-coming generations of rock, folk, and soul musicians like Jeff and Spencer Tweedy, Grace Potter, and Glen Hansard.

YouTube Preview Image

The live concert exhibits high energy in every song and is certainly worth viewing for an all-consuming soulful experience. The show opens as Joan Osborne steps out on stage performing “You’re Driving Me (To The Arms of a Stranger)” followed by Keb’ Mo’ on “Heavy Makes You Happy.” A camera occasionally sets its focus off-stage on Mavis Staples’ joyful smile as she sings and dances along with the music.

From Buddy Miller’s “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus)” to Taj Mahal’s “Wade In The Water,” each performance adopts Christian themes and engages with gospel influences. Many of the songs featured in this concert, such as Michael McDonald’s “Freedom Highway” and Eric Church’s “Eyes On The Prize,” reflect Mavis’s dedication to the Civil Rights Movement when she sang with the Staple Singers. Aaron Neville’s gentle voice sweetly complements while sharply contrasts Mavis’ unrivaled iconic vocals on “Respect Yourself.”

Between songs on the DVD release, the guest artists share their appreciation for Mavis Staples and her creative contributions to soul and R&B music. Her commitment to quality and giving her best with every performance can be seen in her energy on stage and engagement with the audience, especially on her solo song, “I’ll Take You There.” The full ensemble on “The Weight” combines the spirit of the night in one final and satisfying crowd-pleaser. This explosive collection of renowned musicians sharing the stage to honor Mavis Staples feels like the greatest birthday party you would not want to miss. Luckily, you can catch the concert when it will be aired on the cable network AXS TV on June 4th.

Reviewed by Jennie Williams

Various Artists – Take Me to the River

take me to the river

Title: Take Me to the River

Artist: Various Artists

Label: Shout Factory

Release date: February 5, 2016

Format: Blu-Ray, DVD

 

 

This month sees the  DVD release of a film celebrating the enduring legacy of Memphis soul music, Take Me to the River. This music documentary aims to address all things Memphis soul, mostly focusing on the Stax operation. Narrator Terrence Howard tells the story of the city’s musical past and continuing legacy, interspersed with clips of musicians interacting in the studio as well as musical performances (including Howard himself singing and playing guitar on one song). While the film’s narrative gets lost at times, this is largely mitigated by the wonderful performances on this record, combining a number of musical legends (several of who have passed away since this film was shot) with musicians of various successive generations. This often results in interesting fusions, like Bobby “Blue” Bland and Yo Gotti performing a rendition of “Ain’t no Sunshine” together, complete with an original rap verse by the latter.  Other high profile guest artists include William Bell, Snoop Dogg, Mavis Staples, Otis Clay, Charlie Musselwhite, Frayser Boy, and North Mississippi Allstars, who make up the backing band on several cuts.  The film also highlights the legacy of Memphis soul by addressing the role of music education in the city and the work of the Soulsville Foundation, including high school youth being mentored by Stax legends. This movie focuses on an important slice of Memphis’s musical culture and Take Me to the River includes some wonderful performances that celebrate the city’s vibrant history of soul music.

Here is a trailer for the film: YouTube Preview Image

Reviewed by Matthew Alley

Live: Hope At the Hideout


Title: Live: Hope At The Hideout

Artist:  Mavis Staples

Label: Anti

Catalog No.: 86993

Release Date: November 2008

Mavis Staples got her start as one of the lead singers of the celebrated gospel/soul group The Staple Singers, originally founded and headed by her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples.  After a string of singles and albums for Vee-Jay and Riverside in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the Staples, like many gospel artists of the time, found a secular outlet for their music in the burgeoning Southern soul sound.  They reached the height of their popularity after a move to the Memphis-based Stax label in 1968, becoming one of the primary musical voices of the American Civil Rights Movement with their positive and inspirational message songs.  At Stax, they worked with the likes of Booker T. & the MG’s and producer/songwriter Al Bell, the latter providing the Staples with their first number one single, “I’ll Take You There,” in 1972, considered by Rolling Stone magazine to be one of the top 500 songs of all time.

Mavis herself recorded as a leader for the first time in 1969.  She released solo albums sporadically until the early 1990s, including two for Prince’s Paisley Park/NPG label.  An almost decade-long hiatus followed — like many of the great soul singers of the 1960s, it took a while for Staples to be “rediscovered” — but since 2004 she has released three recordings in quick succession: Have A Little Faith (Alligator) from that year; 2007’s We’ll Never Turn Back (Anti-), a Ry Cooder production featuring an updated take on songs drawn mostly from the Civil Rights era; and 2008’s Live: Hope At The Hideout (also on Anti-), a rousing performance with her touring band recorded at a Monday night club show in Chicago.

One of the joys of Live: Hope At The Hideout is hearing Staples preach and growl in a bare bones setting, fronting a compact three-piece band augmented by a trio of backing singers.  At 70-years old, her voice is naturally rougher around the edges than it was during her Stax heyday (almost channeling Howlin’ Wolf near the end of  “On My Way”), but Staples’ brand of music is one that rewards honesty and emotional depth above surface beauty and impeccable technique.

Most of the songs recorded here are either traditional gospel numbers or recent arrangements from We’ll Never Turn Back.  After warming up the crowd with a brief version of Stephen Stills’ classic “For What It’s Worth,” Mavis and company dig into “Eyes On the Prize,” one of the songs from her 2007 CD.  While it’s impossible for anyone else to replicate the menacing grooves Cooder and drummer Jim Keltner cook up on the studio versions, Staples’ crew more than holds its own, stripping things down to their essentials while retaining the sweaty, funky atmosphere of Cooder’s studio arrangements.  Guitarist Rick Holmstrom displays a reverb-soaked, swamp-rock sound, and throughout the disc he accompanies Mavis with sensitivity and restraint, especially on the hushed duo performance of “Waiting For My Child.”  The rhythm section of Jeff Turmes on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums keeps the groove simmering, while backup singers Donny Gerrard, Chavonne Morris, and sister Yvonne Staples take star turns on Pops Staples’ 1965 lament, “Why Am I Treated So Bad,” and on the gospel chestnut “Wade In The Water.”

Following is a rendition of “Eyes On the Prize” from Staple’s website, accompanied by a video montage of Civil Right’s era imagery:

Not everything on the disc works perfectly.  “Down In Mississippi” pales in comparison to Pops’ despairing 1992 recording (from Peace To the Neighborhood, also with Cooder and Keltner), Mavis’ faster tempo striking a somewhat more defiant tone than the earlier version.  And the encore performance of “I’ll Take You There” is performed here as a one-off with just voice and Holmstrom’s guitar, losing the punchy horns and hip, quasi-reggae groove of the original from Be Altitude: Respect Yourself.  But these are minor quibbles, and probably unfair ones at that.  It’s impossible for an artist to top herself (or her father!) all the time, and Mavis Staples at 70 offers pleasures that, while distinct from those of her youth, are still eminently worth savoring.

Posted by Terry Simpkins

Oh Happy Day

Title: Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration

Artists: Various

Label: EMI Gospel

Catalog No.: 509995128622

Release Date: March 31, 2009

In 1975, performer/scholar Pearl Williams-Jones wrote an article entitled “Afro-American Gospel Music: A Crystallization of the Black Aesthetic,” where she illustrated how gospel music represents the totality of black aesthetic expressions.  Ultimately, her interpretation of the genre not only presented gospel music as a religious art form, but also as a vehicle for bridging the gap between sacred and secular practices in black music.  Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration, a new release by EMI Gospel, is a contemporary manifestation of Williams-Jones’ notion of gospel music, as it highlights duets between religious and mainstream music artists: Johnny Lang is paired with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, Robert Randolph with the Clark Sisters, Al Green with Heather Headley, and 3 Doors Down with the Soul Children of Chicago. This CD is a tribute to gospel music that is long overdue, as the genre has functioned as a breeding ground for many of the mainstream music industry’s top artists from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Curtis Mayfield to Fantasia.  In fact, gospel music has constantly shaped the performance practices and, essentially, the sound of American popular music.

Some of the highlighted duets– such as rocker Jon Bon Jovi with The Washington Youth Choir as well as R&B diva Mavis Staples with Patty Griffin– are overly ambitious and do not necessarily capture the gospel feel (a qualitative performance character), or are unevenly matched vocally.  Nevertheless, there are several jewels on this project such as the rendition of the Impressions 1965 single, “People Get Ready” by the Reverend Al Green and Heather Headley.  Green and Headley’s extended vocal range and elongated phrasings are superbly complimentary.  In addition, their ability to pace their individual ad libs creates mature vocal placement, which keeps them from over-singing and over-shadowing each other.  This track is a good source for novice singers who are searching for an example of how to execute soulful music with patience.

“Oh Happy Day,” featuring Queen Latifah with the Jubilation Choir, represents another notable duet on this project. Queen Latifah’s smooth and warm vocals parallel the rounded and legato phrasing of the Jubilation Choir.  In addition, the instrumental accompaniment on this track illustrates a quintessential example of sacred/secular fluidity in black music.  The Earth, Wind & Fire styled horn riffs, guitar lines incorporating bluesy and churchy vocabulary (if there is a difference), and vamp reminiscent of Sunday morning worship services, all merge to form a distinct sound that resonates within the traditional black church as well as the broader mainstream community that appreciates soul music.

“I Believe” presents the soulful vocals of Johnny Lang and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.  This song paints a picture of a southern-based gritty, communal, hand clapping and foot stomping church deep in the back woods where all the saints are on one accord expressing their commitment to faith in God’s word.   Lang’s raspy vocals create the feel of the shouts and squalls of the black preacher, while the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ background harmonies and rhythmic execution reflect those in the “amen” corner whose excitement for the gospel spreads throughout the congregation (and in this case, the listener), prompting others to sing along with similar conviction.  In addition, Lang’s guitar playing, grounded in the blues tradition, meshes well with the down home ambiance of the track.

Following is EMI’s promo video which demonstrates the widespread appeal of the project:

These tracks, along with others on the CD, reflect an ongoing tradition in black music where sacred and secular practices co-exist.  They also illustrate the fact that gospel music transcends boundaries of race, gender and generation.   More importantly, Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration presents timeless songs that have assisted in developing and sustaining the beliefs of people throughout the world.  It is a must have for those who desire to revisit the more traditional gospel music repertoire in a unique and contemporary way.

Posted by Tyron Cooper

Soulsville Sings Hitsville

Title: Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings Songs of Motown Records
Artists: Various
Label: Stax/Concord
Catalog No.: STXCD-30391
Date: 2008

In his book, Soulsville, U.S.A. – The Story of Stax Record (1997), popular music historian Rob Bowman documents the story of Memphis-based Stax Records. Bowman describes the story of Stax as “about as improbable and unforeseeable as any tale could possibly be.” Originally founded as Satellite Records in 1957 by white country fiddler Jim Stewart, Stax from its conception was racially integrated in all facets of its operations. Stax was also instrumental in establishing Southern soul and the south Memphis sound. The signature sound and style are attributed to its house band, which consisted of Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, and the horn section from the Mar-Keys. Additionally, the Stax sound was also derived from the physical characteristics of its recording studio. Essentially a converted movie theatre, the studio had a slanted floor with sound proofing affixed to the interior walls and sound equipment installed on the stage.

Soulsville Sings Hitsville: Stax Sings Songs of Motown Records in essence brings the “city” cousin home to the south, and reintroduces him to long lost country roots. Containing 15 tracks, this compilation provides the Southern soul singer’s interpretation of northern soul songs from the Motown catalog.

“Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” was first recorded by The Four Tops in (1966) and by Diana Ross in (1971). The Mar-Keys’ instrumental version gives this classic Motown tune a rockin’ edge by implementing a couple of rock riffs along with other guitar effects, and places the solo line with the tenor saxophone. Although the song has been altered from its original form, you are still able to recognize the distinguishable Motown flavor which is illustrated through the accents of the tambourine.

Originally recorded by Stevie Wonder in 1970, “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” has been revived and given a new walk, so to speak, by The Soul Children. With its heavy blues and gospel influences, you find it hard to resist the urge to snap your fingers as you leave the church revival to pay your dues at the local juke joint.

Other notable tracks include: “You’ve Got to Earn It” by the Staple Singers; “Stop! In the Name of Love” by Margie Joseph; “I Don’t Know Why I Love You” by David Porter; “Can I Get a Witness” by Calvin Scott; and “Chained” by Mavis Staples.

Posted by Terence La Nier II