By Maria Caetano
As an early adolescent, Mavis Staples was traveling the United States with her father and siblings providing the soundtrack for the movement against racial discrimination. The Staples Singers were big in churches even before shaking hands with Luther King in Alabama in 1963 and singing to his words. Mavis’s deep and powerful voice was an object of amazement, and the girl then was someone you’d propose to, as Bob Dylan did, unsuccessfully, as the story goes.
“Living on a High Note”, the latest release of ANTI-Records with gospel queen Mavis Staples, is greatly reminiscent of the 1960’s civil rights movement in the United States, and works as a perfect circular narrative showing us both her place in history and in the bright side of the musical force.
The opening track, “Take Us Back”, is a bit of a biographic note on the 76-year old Chicago musical legend, nicknamed Bubbles on the count of a positive predisposition, which is much the underlying tone of the entire album. The New Orleans-based songwriter and guitarist Benjamin Booker crafts the theme, in which a gospel choir sings along, ‘Mavis, take us back’.
Later, the album wraps up in full-cycle with the powerful “MLK Song”, an M Ward theme in which Staples sings the words of the final sermon of Martin Luther King (“in the march for peace tell them I played the drum/When I have to meet my day”). M Ward has produced this album, bringing together a pack of mostly indie folk musicians to help in the deliverance of this legacy record.
Mavis Staples has revealed in interviews that the briefing she gave musicians working with her was that the songs should be as uplifting as Pharrel William’s “Happy”. And she indeed almost managed to bring even Nick Cave to the beat. “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me”, although written and composed by the so-called Prince of Darkness, is a beautiful sound-comforting piece still true to gospel traditions, and faithful to Cave as well.
The truth is none of the people involved are distant from a repertoire to which Staples can relate. Ben Harper, Neko Case, Valerie June, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, Merril Garbus’ Tune-Yards, The Head and the Heart, Aloe Blacc and Jon Batiste are all extended family brought up against the backdrop of gospel and soul. Such kindredness resonates in the full album, in a way that preserves Mavis’ as well as her collaborators’ originality.
Justin Vernon’s “Dedicated” is as poignant as you’d expect from something coming out of his hands. Yet, the dark corners of the song are illuminated by Staples’ and M Ward’s presence in it. The message-style in Staples’ songs is also amplified in remarkable tracks such as “Action”, by Tune-Yards, and “History, Now”, by Neko Case.
In all good gospel tradition, “Living on a High Note” pleases and praises our best selves, if not the lord. And it manages to command a bit of dream into our lives and tiny struggles.
Living on a High Note
ANTI- Records, 2016