A genuine 80s houserockin’ party was thrown in Newark last night and the guests of honor did all the work.
Appearing at the outset of the TD Bank James Moody Jazz Festival, Mavis Staples and Buddy Guy sang and played gospel and the blues, demonstrating the power this music still holds. Remarkably, both headliners (Mavis opened the show, but that’s a technicality–these two are co-equals) are now in their 80s. If you want to make a connection, however tenuous, between octogenarian health and music I’m certainly not going to stop you.
Just a few months after celebrating her 80th birthday this past July, Mavis Staples took the stage in front of a line-up most classic rock fans would recognize–a power trio. Some purist might fault me for that, but Zeppelin was really a power trio with a vocalist, as is, in its own way, U2. This crack unit featured Rick Holmstrom on guitar, Jeff Turmes on bass and Stephen Hodges on drums, all of whom contributed backing vocals. Additional vocal support came from Chandra Williams and Donny Gerrard.
Not that Ms. Staples requires much in the way of support. You’d never know the woman delivering this crisp set was in her ninth decade. She crooned, sang, growled and shouted her way through a set that included “Respect Yourself,” the 1972 single from The Staples Singers best-known album, the Al Bell-produced Be Altitude: Respect Yourself. Mrs. AHC is a huge fan of that record and being able to see Mavis live was a big treat for her.
Most of the set drew from songs heard on more recent albums. In the 1990s, Prince tried to resurrect Mavis’ career, building on the sounds of her early 1970s solo albums. Those records didn’t click, though I recall liking “Jaguar” from 1989’s Time Waits for No One. More recently, on the Alligator and Anti labels, Mavis has returned to her roots and the songs she chose to share reflected the social concerns never far from the surface of The Staple Singers‘ repertoire. The song titles alone tell the tale: “Change,” “We Get By,” “Build a Bridge.”
Ever since she crossed paths with Wilco‘s Jeff Tweedy, Mavis’ records have sounded great, creating ample space for her incredble vocal abilites within spare arrangements. At times last night, the band sounded almost as if they were playing gospel dub, so heavy was the bottom end. That’s not a band thing, nor were the churched up covers she chose to sing, Buffalo Springfield‘s “For What it’s Worth,” still a political tune after all these years, and, just for fun, the Talking Heads‘ “Slippery People,” which the band found a way to funk up even more.
If Mavis brought the sacred, Buddy brought the profane. What he delivered was a master class in the history of the blues replete with humour, innuendo, profanity, cocktail breaks and walk-around-the house solos. Sure, he played the hits (I’m not sure what else to call “Feels Like Rain) both major and minor (“Skin Deep”), as well as newer songs like “Cognac” and “The Blues is Alive and Well.” I won’t dwell on the fact that the big hit was released more than 25 years ago, a fact which probably would puzzle Buddy as much as it does me. I’ll allow him more leeway; he’s 83 after all.
In between there were snippets of classics (“Hoochie Coochie Man,” “Sweet Sixteen,” “Boom Boom”). Covers (“Take me to the River”). Juke joint vaudeville with guitars used as, ahem, motile appendages. And demonstrations. That last word choice may strike some as odd, but how else to describe stepping on a wah-wah pedla and launching into the introductory bars of “Voodoo Chile.” Or using a chopstick (maybe?) to bang out the opening notes of “Sunshine of Your Love.”
The point may have been lost on some. At one point Buddy questioned the audience as to whether they knew who Muddy Waters was and how they’d learned of him. “The Who? So the white boys had to tell you who he was. Then you listened.” When someone tried to press the claim that Bobby Rush was a Jerseyite, Guy made short shrift of that fantasy. “I know him. And I’m from Louisiana, just like he is.” Later, after playing in the style of B.B. King he asked who the audience to name great guitar players. The responses tended to favor the arena blues crowd, living and dead.
Throughout Buddy played the showman. But he was also, I thought, honest to a fault. He didn’t deny the cup he kept visiting didn’t contain water. He’d point out he didn’t write the more risque tunes, but he didn’t avoid singing them. He spoke of growing up so poor he didn’t have running water until he was 17. And he said, “You may hate me, not even know me and hate me. But if you fall down, I’m gonna help you up. That’s just the way I was raised. And maybe I’ll be one of the best things that ever happened to you.”
Maybe he will. I know that on a Sunday night in Newark in November, he came pretty close.