LIVE: Mavis Staples / Joan Osborne @ Proctors, 11/6/15
Review by Don Wilcock
Photographs by Rudy Lu
OK, I admit it. My expectations for the Mavis Staples/Joan Osborne concert at Proctors last weekend were way over the top. I have seen transcendent performances by both artists, who, at their best, grab their audiences by the throat and take them to heaven not just in their great songs, but with their personalities that cause you to fall in love with them through their intimate connections and amazing vocal prowess.
The idea that these two beautiful souls would collaborate had me fantasizing that together one plus one would equal infinity, an explosive fusion of two great sirens, one black, one white; one a legend of the civil rights movement – the moral equivalent of Martin Luther King – the other a waif from Kentucky who spent years woodshedding with the Holmes Brothers to channel the blues giants and erase society’s imposed boundaries between gospel, blues and pop. Osborne is a vocal dynamo who turned me into a believer more than two decades ago when she blew the roof of The Metro in Saratoga with a version of Sonny Boy Williamson’s “Help Me” that transformed his dirty old man ballad into an erotic orgasm.
Of course, all that hope of an epic collaboration was fantasy. Four days before their major U.S. tour opened in the famed Fillmore in San Francisco, Osborne had yet to rehearse with Staples. She told me they had yet to even get together and talk about the tour. By the time the show hit Schenectady, they’d done 20 shows in a little over a month, and Mavis chided her “Skin–eck–at–diddy” audience: “I believe this is my first time here. What took you so long? You should have had us before now. You let me get older.”
The only collaboration in the evening came when Osborne sang back-up to Staples’ lead vocal on “Down by the Riverside” just before the encore. Instead, Joan did a 45-minute opening set that ran right into Staples’ hour-long set.
Separate and not equal, the two both did numbers that touched on their genius but never cruised high enough to reach escape velocity. Osborne’s voice has matured impressively since she was doing her best Janis Joplin at Takin’ It to the Streets in Schenectady’s Central Park a quarter century ago with just a touch of husky that hints at how interesting her delivery is going to get the older she gets. Her version of “Angel from Montgomery” was an easy match for Bonnie Raitt or Susan Tedeschi’s versions.
Even though she is best known for her Grammy-nominated 1995 hit “One of Us,” it was not the high point of this show. That honor goes to her spot-on cover of Slim Harpo’s swamp boogie classic “Shake Your Hips.” Guitarist Rick Holmstrom lit into that infectious number as if he’d been playing it since 1965 – the year he was born – in the Excello Studio in Louisiana. In fact, throughout the concert, Holmstrom literally carried the small band, leaning into the guitar like a soldier fighting against a hurricane wind. Accompanied by longtime bandmates drummer Stephen Hodges and bass player Jeff Turmes, Holmstrom was facile, mellifluous and incredibly versatile. He’s been Staples’ band leader since 2007 but was new to Osborne’s material.
Staple’s genius is in her ability to sell herself and her daddy’s – the late Pop Staples – treasure chest of songs that were precedent-setting in their direct messages. Early on, like James Brown, the Staple Singers broke away from burying civil rights issues in code to deliver a message of fighting racism with a clarion call for freedom and togetherness.
At her best, Staples can deliver these songs with a fervor that pulls her audiences up by the lapel and carries them into her world like a tsunami. She approached lift-off on her opening “If You’re Ready” and again with “Respect Yourself,” but it was her encore of “I’ll Take You There” that had the crowd on their feet. “My family, the Staple Singers – we’ve been taking you there for 65 years,” she reminded us, and then she did just that. She took us there to that idealized heaven on earth where the world is united and holding hands. “I sleep with a smile on my face,” she told her minions. And well she should.
At Proctors, the Mavis Staples/Joan Osborne concert was all about what was, what is and what could have been. The encore of “I’ll Take You There” was a taste of what Mavis Staples’ command of an audience once was. Her sitting through “Respect Yourself” is the reality of what is, and Joan Osborne’s joining her on stage for “Down by the Riverside” was a touch of what could have been.
Greg Haymes’ review at The Times Union
Bryan Lasky’s review and photographs at NYS Music
Sara Foss’ review at Thinking It Through
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “A moral force as much as a musician, Staples swept onstage with a huge, warmly smiling presence and engaged the boomer-intensive crowd immediately in reaching for the higher ground in ‘If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)’ — singers Vicki Randle and Donny Gerrard joining Holstrom, Hodges and bassist Jeff Turmes. Next, Staples threw a giant curve-ball: Talking Heads’ ‘Slippery People’ — all rubbery funk groove under gleeful skat singing. Then it was back to the church for ‘Creep Along Moses,’ a biblical saga sung with perfect harmonies… Summoning Osborne back onstage for (a somewhat disorganized) ‘Down by the Riverside,’ Staples deftly shifted from an authoritative voice of moral struggle into a celebratory one of triumph in plain sight.”
THE SOLID SOUL SET LIST
Where We Start
Hip Shake (Shake Your Hips) (Slim Harpo)
Angel From Montgomery (John Prine)
The Same Love That Made Me Laugh (Bill Withers)
One of Us
I Can’t Let It Get Me Down
If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)
Slippery People (Talking Heads)
Creep Along Moses
We’re Gonna Make It
Mavis Staples/Joan Osborne
Down by the Riverside
Mavis Staples/Joan Osborne
I’ll Take You There