Mavis Staples Turns Mahalia Tribute Into Revival Meeting

Opener Paula West and her band dazzled the crowd with expert jazz renditions of such standards as 'Fly Me to the Moon.'

SAN FRANCISCO — Revival music shook the rafters of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theatre on Saturday, as R&B/gospel legend Mavis Staples paid tribute in story and song to the late queen of gospel, Mahalia Jackson.

As the final show of the AfroSolo Arts Festival 2000 — a monthlong series of concerts, events and workshops organized by the local AfroSolo Theatre Company — Staples delivered a stellar performance of some of Jackson's gospel songs and her own signature tunes.

Soon after a dazzling opening set by jazz singer Paula West, and a small set change that added a Hammond B-3 church organ, Steven Smith, Staples' only accompanist, began tapping out a smooth groove on the organ to the clapping beat of the audience. This unsolicited crowd participation prefigured the audience involvement Staples would command throughout her performance.

Arriving onstage dressed in a long, black gown and sequined high-heeled shoes, Staples was the very embodiment of the true gospel singer, clapping her hands along with the audience as she made her way to the microphone, her informal manner contrasting with her formal attire.

Her first song, "I'll Fly Away From Here," was well received by the energetic audience. Smith and Staples interacted comfortably, playing off each others' changes and cues without a misstep, and giving the entire performance a flow more reminiscent of a Sunday church service than a Saturday night concert.

Thanks For The Memories

Staples included such gospel favorites as "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" and "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," interspersing between each song memories of times spent with Jackson, her mentor and idol. After recalling the time she first heard Jackson's voice on her father's old record player when she was only 8, Staples remarked with a smile, "I knew I loved that voice and felt something inside me, but I just didn't know what it was."

Staples told those stories as if she were speaking to an audience of one, rather than the few hundred who had paid to witness her performance. "I lived by what Sister Mahalia Jackson taught me," Staples said. "When I talk about her, I see her; she really comes alive in those times."

During her rendition of "Precious Lord, Take My Hand," while cries of "Tell it, sister!" and "Amen!" rose from the audience, Staples appeared to be moved by the Holy Spirit, as she grabbed the microphone from its stand and began to twirl and dance her way from one side of the bare stage to the other. At this point, she and Smith hit the peak of their performance — the audience was swept up in the emotion of the moment as she called and he responded.

After a quick sip of water, she turned back to the crowd and said, "I don't mean to be acting ugly up here, but when the spirit hits you, you got to move!"

Fitting Tribute

Staples closed the show with a tongue-in-cheek apology. "I'm sorry that this last one is one that Sister Mahalia never got to hear," she said. "But because it's about going to heaven, I'm sure she won't mind if we play a little of it."

With that, Staples began the song made famous by her family band, the Staple Singers' "I'll Take You There" (RealAudio excerpt of Staple Singers version), and the audience responded to her call by singing along.

Before West's performance — which featured expert jazz renditions of such standards as "Fly Me to the Moon" and Oscar Brown Jr.'s "Snake" by her and her band (bassist Bill Douglass, drummer Eddie Marshall, pianist Ken Muir and Noel Jewkes' tone on woodwinds) — AfroSolo founder and artistic director Thomas Simpson set the evening's spiritual tone, by asking the audience to "think of someone who has gone on and call out their names." Toward the end of Staples' set, Simpson returned to the stage to present Staples with the AfroSolo Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award.

The show ended with Staples returning for a final encore, taking "I'll Take You There" from the stage into the audience. She walked comfortably among the cheering concertgoers, who sang and clapped along with the music as if they were all members of the same congregation — the church of the gospel according to Mavis Staples.