Mavis Staples's legendary voice still soars

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Daily Arts Writer
Published September 20, 2010

Chicago is making a comeback. Between Obama's presidency, an annual music festival in its scenic Grant Park and a wealth of iconic musicians, the Windy City (failed Olympic bids aside) has become one of the country’s nerve centers for both music and progressive politics.

Mavis Staples

You Are Not Alone

So who better to combine the two than Mavis Staples, the youngest and arguably most storied of the Staples Singers who has been putting her progressive-minded gospel growl to tape for more than 50 years. Famous for her collaborations with Bob Dylan and The Band as well as her close involvement with the civil rights movement, Staples has often been called the voice of her generation. And while she reached moderate fame on the back of singles like “I’ll Take You There” in the ’60s, she’s never been given the venerated status and recognition enjoyed by other elder acts.

Maybe You Are Not Alone is an attempt to finally cement Staples as one of the all-time greats — though it seems like everyone who knows her well has given her that status long ago. Produced by Jeff Tweedy, the principal songwriter behind Wilco, Staples’s new record might finally give her the attention and Grammy nods she’s long deserved.

Tweedy was so impressed with the legendary gospel singer while attending the performances that would comprise 2008’s Hope at The Hideout live record, he figured he’d be lucky just to meet her. Within months, what started as a friendly conversation between music fans turned into a symbiotic working relationship that produced 13 new tracks recorded in Tweedy’s Wilco Loft studio.

A mix of old spiritual standards, some well chosen covers (including tracks by Allen Toussaint, John Fogerty and Randy Newman) and a few originals by Tweedy and Staples, You Are Not Alone captures a group of musicians who just bleed soul. Tweedy was keen to keep Staples's touring band for the record, namely the trio of Rick Holmstrom (guitar), Jeff Turmes (bass) and Stephen Hodges (drums). Also contributing to the album are alt-country all-stars Kelly Hogan and Pat Sansone (Wilco), providing vocals and extra instrumentation to the carefully laid, sparse mix. Each of these players, along with the Ray Charles-esque howl of background vocalist Donny Gerrard, lay the perfect soulful foundation for Staples to do her thing. And boy, does she do it — at 71, no less.

“Creep Along Moses,” a traditional gospel song that her father, Pops Staples, would play for her with a bunch of other old 78s, has all the bluesy guitar and restraint of her best material. Tweedy’s tracks, “You Are Not Alone” and “Only the Lord Knows,” feature the songwriter at his soulful best, recalling many of his trademark melodic turns that here seem perfectly tailored to Staples's classically American sound. With a careful injection of spiritual themes and lyrics, Tweedy gives each song enough skyward longing to match Staples's religious charge.

“Wrote a Song for Everyone,” a Fogerty-penned ballad, has a choral refrain with enough warmth and fervor to bring the rapture to any Sunday congregation. Likewise with “In Christ There Is No East or West,” in which Staples's vocals outshine everything else.

And it’s Staples who deserves most attention: While Tweedy skillfully highlights the singer’s most valuable asset (her voice), his production is mostly too careful and unadventurous. Those looking for a Mermaid Avenue-caliber project (Wilco’s experimental take on unreleased Woody Guthrie songs) might be disappointed with the safe choices on this record — but the album, after all, is about Staples, not Tweedy.

For as much as this record may be glossed over for its lack of innovation or exploration, it serves as an important document in the history of Mavis Staples’s storied career and features an inspired collaboration. And if you’re amazed at how powerful she still sounds, you’re not alone.