Mavis Staples, Koerner Hall, Toronto, ON – 1/29
Photo by Andrew Dubinsky
“When you moan, the devil don’t know what you’re talkin’ about!” Mavis Staples told a packed house Sunday night at Koerner Hall. This bewitching charge, passed down from her grandmother, was just one of many conversational asides offered throughout a sociable 90-minute set under the canopied ceiling of Toronto’s finest venue. The 72 year-old soul legend, brimming with positive energy, never missed an opportunity to showcase her humorous side while offering a musical selection that spanned well over a century.
Opening a cappella style with the hymnal ‘Wonderful Saviour’, Ms. Staples and her band warmly filled the wood-bedecked room with a rich vocal collage. Conspicuously absent an organist, the instrumental trio of Rick Holmstom (guitar), Jeff Turmes (bass), and Stephen Hodges (drums) nevertheless brought unruffled dependability to the stage, as the show went electric. A trifecta of supporting vocalists rounded out the backing ensemble, featuring older sister Yvonne Staples (who adorably carried her purse on and off stage with her) and led by the silky smooth timbre of Donny Gerrard. The audience hand-claps began during an early cover of ‘The Weight’ and the jovial vibe did not subside.
‘For What It’s Worth’ continued the trend of borrowed material before Ms. Staples trotted out the choicest selections from her most recent album. The title track from 2010’s You Are Not Alone, penned by fellow Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy, was noticeably the most contemporary number of the night. Melancholy but ultimately uplifting, it maintained the overall air of optimism that permeated the performance. Unwavering in her affirmations of faith and heavenly alignment, Ms. Staples could inspire even the staunchest of atheists to get up and sing the gospel.
“Dr. King liked all of our songs”, she bragged while referencing the Staple Singers’ noted involvement in the civil rights movement, “but this one was his favorite.” The ensuing rendition of ‘Why (Am I Treated So Bad)’, driven by Turmes’ deep bass line, allowed Ms. Staples to flaunt her signature moan while providing the evening’s most emotional moments. ‘Freedom Highway’ and a subdued version of Little Milton’s ‘We’re Gonna Make It’ followed, with Gerrard sharing lead duties and showing off his exquisite range on the latter.
“I’ll Take You There,” The Staple Sisters’ biggest hit, arrived late in the set to expected titillation. Solicited to sing along, the audience briefly complied before fading out. Ms. Staples’ spirit, however, would not be quenched. Rousing versions of ‘Eyes On The Prize’ and Curtis Mayfield’s ‘This Is My Country’ made for a memorable encore, as the caterwauls and requisite applause reached fever pitch. A standing ovation was met with blown kisses and a delightful grin, as Ms. Staples left all 1,135 spectators glowing with appreciation. The deed was done, and the devil never knew what hit him.