Mavis Staples shared the love last night at the Kauffman Center
Mavis Staples and Nick Lowe
Sunday, March 13
For the full slideshow from last night, go here.
“I can promise you, Mavis is on fire,” British singer-songwriter Nick Lowe told the audience last night, a few songs into his opening set. “When is she not, I ask?”
Last night’s double-bill at the Kauffman Center was the final date in the brief tour Mavis Staples and Lowe have shared this month, and the good fortune of hosting the pair in Kansas City wasn’t lost on anyone. Lowe kicked things off with an acoustic set, largely featuring cuts from him 2007 album, At My Age, as well as a few of his classics.
“I’ve written a lot of tunes in my time, ladies and gentlemen, indeed,” Lowe said, smiling, “and a few of them have been very successful, and quite a few of them have not. I’ll have some of both tonight.” And, with a casual wave of trademark English self-deprecation, he added that all his songs were on the short side: “If one comes along and you think, ‘Oh, my God, make it stop,’ just rest assured that it will, very quickly.”
But Lowe kept us occupied for an hour, and not once did anyone seem particularly eager for his set to end. Translated into acoustic form, Lowe’s songs presented as ambling folk tunes. He is an uncanny storyteller — “Stoplight Roses” and “I Live on a Battlefield” are near-perfect songs — and his voice, a bit like worn leather, is a comfortable match. When it came to Lowe’s best-known songs — “Cruel To Be Kind,” “What’s Shakin’ On the Hill” and, of course, “The Beast in Me,” which he wrote for Johnny Cash — the charming spell was complete. (Later, when Staples would refer to Lowe as a “silver fox,” several members of the audience would nod their heads in agreement.)
And, true to his word, Mavis Staples arrived like a joyful flame to the stage, backed by a five-piece ensemble (a drummer, a guitarist, a bass player and one male and one female backing vocalist). A petite woman with a smile that took up most of her face, she began with “If You’re Ready (Come With Me),” and from that moment on, we were hers.
It did take those first three songs, which Staples bolted through, to get used to her voice: a startlingly deep thing, uncommon and not really what you’d call pretty — a bit like a mellifluous bullfrog. But there is an incredible power that Staples wields with great aplomb, and she pushed her vocals to the limit last night as she screeched, howled and — at one point, during a cover of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” scatted through a set that lasted nearly 90 minutes.
The 76-year-old Staples also took plenty of time to get to know her audience. Throughout the night, she would walk purposefully up and down the stage, reaching out to grasp the hands of her audience members and playfully doling out side-eye. (“You didn’t say a word,” she happily admonished someone who had not, in fact, responded to the call-and-response bit that came during “I’ll Take You There.”) There was some baseball talk — Staples made some references to the teams of her hometown of Chicago — and then Staples, with a laugh that was wholly contagious, told us about her goal for the night.
“We come this evening to bring you joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations!” she exclaimed. “We want to leave you feeling good. I don’t know for how long,” she said, playfully raising an eyebrow, “but just so that you feel good while we’re here.”
Throughout the show, Staples would give these spirited mini-sermons, giving the Kauffman Center the air of a church without ever sounding preachy. She carried us through “Respect Yourself” in this way, and then an uplifting rendition of “Freedom Highway,” which took the crowd to its feet (and not for the first — or last — time).
“My father, Pop Staples, he wrote that song for the big march from Selma to Montgomery,” Staples said, to thunderous applause. “I was there, and I’m still here. I’m a witness, y’all. I’m a living witness! I’m a soldier! I’m still fighting! I’m fighting for love, for peace, and I’m gonna keep on fighting. I’m in this army of love, and Pop would be proud.”
Yes, Mavis, he certainly would be. That was a high point of the evening, but the show was only half-over. Staples performed several cuts from her latest album, the February-released Livin’ on a High Note. All the songs from that album were written, Staples informed us, by “young blood” songwriters — Valerie June, Ben Harper, Bon Iver and their ilk. In Staples’ capable hands, each of these tunes were aged up with wisdom and good nature.
Staples ended with a Staple Family Singers classic, “I’ll Take You There,” and, indeed, she had. She left the stage to a standing ovation, and she didn’t let too much time pass before she and her band were back on stage for a one-song encore, joined at last by Nick Lowe. Together, they performed an ebullient rendition of “The Weight.”
I watched as a sea of smiling faces mouthed the lyrics and swayed along with Staples: She had certainly made good on her promise to make us feel good, and it was a sensation that lingers even now.
Nick Lowe setlist:
Long Limbed Girl
What’s Shakin’ on the Hill
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
Has She Got a Friend?
Trained Her to Love Me
I Live on a Battlefield
The Beast in Me
Cruel to Be Kind
House for Sale
Somebody Cares for Me
Mavis Staples setlist:
If You’re Ready (Come With Me)
Take Us Back
Slippery People (Talking Heads cover)
Love and Trust
Can You Get to That
Livin’ on a High Note
For What It’s Worth
I’ll Take You There
The Weight (The Band)
For more photos, go here.