Take Me to Art 5/9/19: Mavis and Friends (Mavis Staples’ 80th Birthday Show!)

Mavis Staples, Valerie June, and her wonderful band!  (As always, not-great concert photo by yours truly.)

After we saw Amazing Grace, we decided we’d be total fools if we didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to see national treasure, living history, wildly talented musician Mavis Staples perform live for her 80th birthday at the Apollo Theatre. And we weren’t disappointed, of course; in addition to Mavis herself, she was joined by a coterie of other terrific musicians (like Valerie June in that fabulous lime-green number at left).  And it was more than a show; in both the songs and the stories Mavis shared, the evening was a testament to the power of music to change hearts, sustain social movements, and bring meaning and purpose to life over eras and generations.

The Staples family joined the civil rights movement “before there even was a movement,” after hearing Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak, as she noted during the show in her introduction to “Freedom Highway.”  I wonder how many people gained the strength to march alongside the heroes of that movement because of the Staple Singers’ and others’ music.  I wonder, too, why some of the protest songs of the past few years don’t seem as omnipresent as those of the 1960s, since there’s certainly no shortage of crisis to protest or great music to accompany it.  I wasn’t alive then, of course, but it seems like the music of that era was everywhere.  It’s the kind of question I wish Lenny Fox were still around to answer.  But I try not to despair.  Mavis certainly wouldn’t want me to; she continues to make that music, and I continue to seek it out.

And as she continues to make that music, she inspires new generations of musicians.  I loved the intergenerational look and feel of the assembled company during the encore of “The Weight”: Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive and Maggie Rogers are younger than me; David Byrne is my parents’ generation; and of course Mavis herself could be my grandmother.  I think of Matt and Essie singing together at church this morning; I think of our choir, with its NYU grad students and its middle-aged parents of teens and tweens and its retirees; I think, again, with great nostalgia, of flipping through Rise Up Singing with Lenny on the steps at the Judson Weekend.  Good music is ageless, and Mavis never had to say it.  It spoke for itself.

And isn’t that the real hope of living a long life?  Not just that one is still breathing at a given age, but that one is still giving, generating, inspiring, creating.  She mentioned several times over the course of the evening how happy she was to be performing.  It wasn’t hard to understand why: with a voice that still has the power to console, to uplift, to bring the people to their knees or to their feet, she knows her work isn’t yet done.

The evening is going to be a beautiful memory, but I’m most grateful that Mavis isn’t just a memory yet, that her life force and her music are still moving in the world.  God knows we need them.


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