Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mavis should be one of your musical staples

Mavis Staples
You Are Not Alone
(Anti-, 2010)
by Steve “Fly” Klein

Chicagoan Mavis Staples started singing as a teenager with her family’s group, The Staple Singers in 1950. After success with the group, she began a solo career in the 1980s. Her father was the legendary Roebuck “Pops” Staples who was born in Mississippi in 1914 and played with such legends as Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, and Son House.

While Mavis Staples and her latest touring band have been performing regularly for 3 years, this is their first studio album together. The band breathes with Staples’ performance and producer, Jeff Tweedy (of the band Wilco) is wise enough to understand that relationship. Mavis' voice is mixed up front and center on this CD.

The musicians are Rick Holmstrom (or “Pops Jr.” as Staples has called him, guitar and vocals), Jeff Turmes (bass and vocals), Stephen Hodges (drums) and Donny Gerrard (background vocals.) Additional background vocals are by Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor (frequent Neko Case collaborators) and Richard Parenti. Tweedy and members of Wilco make appearances on some cuts.

The first number sets the tone with Pops Staples’ "Don't Knock." Holmstrom has the chops and the tremolo drenched sound of Pops, yet he expands that style and drives this gospel song into one of the best on the CD. Mavis’ smooth vocal is punchy and gravelly at the right times and glides over the accompaniment with power and grace.

“You Are Not Alone” is the first of two songs written by Tweedy on the album. It features additional instruments by Tweedy on acoustic guitar and Wilco members, Patrick Sansone, keys and vibes, and Mark Greenberg on celeste. This song serves as a good contrast to the first, as it presents a contemporary vibe with its pop hook.

The traditional “Creep Along Moses” is a Tweedy-arranged gospel classic that features warm harmonies and Holmstrom's weaponized guitar lead. Another standout is “Wonderful Savior” done a ccapella. Surprisingly the lead vocal was recorded by Staples in the unheated stairwell at Wilco’s Loft Studio in cap, gloves, and coat during the middle of December.

Closing out is “Too Close”/”On My Way To Heaven.” Gerrard does a powerful job singing “Too Close” while Staples is raw, raise-the-roof preachin’ on “On My Way To Heaven.” Holmstrom lays down some impressive, twangy riffs that feel as if John Lee Hooker is testifying alongside the vocalists.

Staples adds her special touch to covers by Little Milton (“We’re Gonna Make It”), Reverend Gary Davis (“I Belong To The Band”), Allen Toussaint (“Last Train”), John Fogerty (“Wrote A Song For Everyone”) and Randy Newman (“Losing You”).

On You Are Not Alone Mavis Staples is sounding better than ever. Of the many collaborators Staples has worked with over the years, Jeff Tweedy's role as producer has proven to be the catalyst in creating one of her best solo albums to date.

Originally published in Chicago Blues Guide,

Staples performing at Lollapalooza, Grant Park, Chicago, August 6, 2010