As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Dec. 10, 2004
One of my fondest memories from the Democratic Convention in Boston last summer was the last day of the convention when I went to the FleetCenter early to type up some notes.
My assigned work space was right next to the band, a horn-heavy ensemble whose main job was to play little snatches of “Soul Man” or “Respect” or Kool & The Gang’s “Celebrate” before politicians’ speeches. (One delegate told me she heard them play “Mr. Big Stuff” before Gov. Bill Richardson’s speech. I was there, but I honestly don’t remember.)
So on the last afternoon of the convention I was sitting there typing notes on a laptop.
Although virtually nobody was on the floor, the band was there. They started playing a song called “The Promised Land.” The singer was doing an excellent imitation of Willie Nelson, I thought. Then I looked down to the stage below, and dang if it wasn’t Willie Nelson himself. He was doing a sound check for his performance at the convention later that night.
Next, the band started playing a soul/gospel version of “America the Beautiful” and there was another familiar voice. Sure enough, it was Mavis Staples, dressed in a sweat shirt for the sound check.
Twenty years before, “America the Beautiful” was performed in a similar style by Ray Charles -- except he sang it at the Republican Convention. Brother Ray had just died a few weeks before, so singing this song at a political convention was bound to draw comparisons. But pulled it off spectacularly. In fact, what living singer is better qualified to assume the mantle of Ray Charles?
This hardly was the first major political event where Staples performed. As part of The Staples Singers with her father and siblings, she sang at the inaugurations of both John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Carter. The Staples also shared the stage many times with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.
Amazingly, except for a few guest spots (on various-artist albums such as the most recent Los Lobos album, cuts on recent tribute albums for Johnny Paycheck, Johnny Cash, Stephen Foster and a gospel tribute to Bob Dylan), Staples until now hasn’t been putting out much of her own music in recent years.
Have a Little Faith is Staples’ first new album in nearly a decade -- and the first since her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples died.
This is an album of mostly gospel tunes with the old standby “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” along with lesser known tunes like the funky “There’s a Devil on the Loose” and “God is Not Sleeping.”
The best songs are down-home and rootsy like the opening cut “Step Into the Light,” which features a mean slide guitar and background vocals from The Dixie Hummingbirds.
Like The Staples Singers, whose biggest hits were songs like “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,“ which were spiritually uplifting without specifically mentioning God, on this album Mavis sings tunes like “At the End of the Day“ and “In Times Like These” (“In times like these/We need to be strong/We need to carry on/We need to get along …). The latter features backing vocals by the Rev. Jesse Dixon and The Chicago Music Community Choir.
There’s a sweet tribute to her father, “Pops’ Recipe,” (“He said accept responsibility/Don’t forget humility … Don’t subscribe to bigotry, hypocrisy, duplicity …)
But I think my favorite one here is a classic Blind Lemon Jefferson song The Staples Singers used to cover. Blind Lemon called it “See That My Grave is Kept Clean.” Canned Heat rocked it up and knocked it up, calling it “One Kind Favor.” Mavis calls it “A Dying Man’s Plea,” and, backed by a dobro and fiddle, infuses it with countrified soul.
My only complaint about this album is that it doesn’t include “America the Beautiful.”
* I Just Want to Be Held by Nathaniel Mayer. To be honest, I’d never heard of this guy, but the liner notes of his new Fat Possum CD assures us that he had a bonafide hit in the early ‘60s with a song called “Village of Love.” But, like too many soul codgers, Mayer fell on hard times -- drink, drugs, poverty and obscurity.
As is the case with the best Fat Possum albums, Mayer’s is rough, raw, rocking and raunchy.
Songs like “You Gotta Work,” with its bitchen Farfisa organ and “I Wanna Dance With You,” with its slightly grating but truly addictive guitar hook, will remind you of the links between ’60s soul and garage-band music.
And songs like “Stick It or Lick It” will explain why Nathaniel Mayer wasn’t invited to perform at the inaugurations of John F. Kennedy or Jimmy Carter. (But Bill Clinton surely would like it.)
The true sign of twisted genius here is Mayer’s cover of John Lennon’s seething “I Found Out.” This was one of Lennon’s angriest songs from his “primal scream” Plastic Ono Band. It’s a rage against religion, drugs, false promises and childhood pain. Mayer spits out “There ain’t no Jesus gonna come from the sky,” like a fallen evangelist drunk on heresy.
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