The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts has been hailed from coast to coast for its architectural and acoustic marvels, but for one night it felt as quaint as a small-town church.
Mavis Staples brought her three-piece band and three backup singers to the center’s Helzberg Hall on Thursday, and she gave a crowd of more than 500 an evening of music that was as charming as it was soul-stirring and inspirational.
Staples, 72, is touring on “You Are Not Alone,” an album she recorded with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco and released in June 2010. In February the recording won a Grammy (Staples’ first) for best Americana album.
She performed several tracks off that album plus several covers for which she has become famous. In between songs, she remained in the good graces of her receptive audience by warming them with plenty of camaraderie and cheer. Staples still has the voice of an emotive soul and gospel singer; between songs, she can convey the rousing style and manners of a preacher at the pulpit.
They opened with a 130-year old gospel hymn, “I Am His and He Is Mine,” setting the mood for the remainder of a 90-minute show that was loose and informal yet engaging and evocative.
Highlights included her lonesome, heart-wrenching reading of “Losing You,” Randy Newman’s song about enduring grief, which she sang accompanied only by her guitarist, Rick Holmstrom. She reprised “The Weight,” a song her family, the Staple Singers, performed with the Band for “The Last Waltz.” She and her band gave it just as much gusto.
She also delivered a hard and funky rendition of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” a testament to the turbulence of the 1960s, of which she and her family were a part. There were other moments of spiritual arousal, like “Close to Heaven” plus “You Are Not Alone” and “We’re Gonna Make It,” both from her latest album. Toward the end, she and her singers took a seat stage-side and watched her trio lay down two instrumental tunes.
But the two most memorable moments came early and late. The first: “Freedom Highway,” a civil rights anthem the Staple Singers released in 1965. Nearly 50 years later, Staples can still render it with a skin-tingling fervor: “Made up my mind and I won’t turn around,” she sang with a mix of devotion and defiance. Afterward, she preached about that march on Selma, Ala., those times and that battle, which, she told her crowd, “ain’t over yet.”
They ended with the song that brought her and the Staple Singers into the American mainstream in 1972, “I’ll Take You There.” For most of the show, this had been a sit-down crowd, one generous with applause but content to sit and take it all in. For the finale, Staples wanted a more appropriate response — a rousing, Sunday-morning call-and-response. She got it and more. By song’s end, most in the place were up on their feet and engaged, clapping, swaying and singing along. It was the right ending to this evening.
A crowd this size comprises many perspectives on faith and spiritualty, but this evening Staples and her band seemed to take nearly everyone to whatever “there” they believe in.