The Eastern Music Festival's weird kid brother, EMFFringe, specializes in bringing world and bilingual musicians, overlooked blues and gospel artists, and rising classical virtuosi to the annual central North Carolina music festival. This branch of EMF recently brought Mavis Staples, Civil Rights-era musical legend, to Greensboro's historic Carolina Theatre for an evening of grooving blues-style re-imaginings of the Staples Singers' self-penned hits and signature traditional covers.
Staples, while still possessed of the vocal ferocity that brings an audience to its feet, relies more on a deep, well-placed alto glow than the marathon high Cs favored by the more diva-esque singers of her time. Her onstage persona is an amalgam of preacher, activist, history teacher, and bandleader. Any pauses between numbers are purely incidental; she transitions between songs with anecdotal narrative style, eliciting enthusiastic shouts from the audience as she remembers Roebuck "Pops" Staples, the Little Rock Nine, or Dr. King. This skillful, semi-sung banter creates a seamless pace for this vitally important history lesson told by her current material, the Ry Cooder-produced resetting of the Staples Singers' Civil Rights-era hits We'll Never Turn Back.
Staples' backing group consisted of three stoic but soulful middle-aged dudes on guitar, bass, and drums in addition to one male and two female backup singers, one of whom is her sister and fellow Staples Singers alum Yvonne. After a brief presentation of a bouquet of yellow flowers and an outsized photo of the thirtieth anniversary reunion of the 1960 Greensboro Woolworth's lunch counter sit-in from the City of Greensboro, the band got down to business.
Although the admittedly impressive lead guitarist slipped into a few moments of G.E. Smith-style overindulgent noodling, the band's funky, relaxed style transformed Staples' diverse songs into a free, gritty blues set. Staples started out with blues standard "Down in Mississippi," J.B. Lenoir's bleak remembrance of hard times down south, and desperate hope of the traditional spiritual "Eyes on the Prize." Her style on older tunes like these is to narrate with a riveting intensity of character, illustrating the story with explosive phrase shaping and ad-libbed apostrophe over the tart, cooed harmonies of her backup singers. Next came the detachedly alarmist "For What It's Worth," originally recorded by Buffalo Springfield in 1967 and covered by the Staples Singers that same year, and rousing, updated versions of traditional spirituals "This Little Light of Mine" and "Jesus Is on the Main Line." Staples segued from gospel's themes of hope and sacrifice back to the late '60s with The Band's signature pre-at-rock spiritual "The Weight." After telling a few family stories — how TV reports of the harassment of young black children in Arkansas in the wake of desegregation inspired Pop Staples to write "Why Am I Treated So Bad" — she launched into a trio of her father's songs, along with "Freedom Highway" and "Respect Yourself."
Staples makes the obligatory plug for her new disc before the penultimate song, the traditional "On My Way," with the genial air of a favorite aunt hinting that there just might be a treat for you in her handbag — and, populist as ever, grins, "And if you can't buy it, get someone to burn it for you. I just want you to hear it." By this time, a small but enthusiastic group of concertgoers had abandoned their seats and gathered in the sunken orchestra pit before the stage to dance. Staples closed with an appropriately jubilant version of the first song Pops ever taught her and Yvonne, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" and a lot of joyful noise from an undoubtedly uplifted and inspired audience.
In an era when comeback tours and albums cause more eye-rolling than jubilance in music fans, one may presume that Staples' 2007 festival tour and latest album, from which most of her set was drawn, are a bid to cash in on politically turbulent times with her activist-musician credentials. However, the reworking of spirituals and folksongs like those Staples were brought up on is a legitimate continuation of a long tradition. If nothing else, her performance stood as a heartening reminder of a time when activists turned to the universality of popular music for ideological capital and musicians wrote music worthy of those who strove tirelessly for everyday equality in America.