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Mavis Staples preaches peace, love and laughter at lively Kauffman Center show

Photo by Susan Pfannmuller

One day after protesters were pepper-sprayed outside a political rally in downtown Kansas City, gospel/soul singer Mavis Staples headlined a show Sunday night at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, just a flew blocks south of the protest.

Staples would give no overt political speeches, but several times she let her music deliver her agenda, which was all about love and acceptance of one another.

For more than 80 minutes, Staples, her three-piece band and two background singers entertained a crowd of nearly 900 people with a feverish mix of gospel, funk, soul and R&B songs, including a few covers and songs pulled from the catalog of her family’s famous ensemble, the Staple Singers.

She opened with one of those, “If You’re Ready (Come With Me),” a song born during the civil rights movement that professes: “No hatred will be tolerated / Peace, love between all the races.”

She followed that with “Take Us Back,” a song from her latest album, the uplifting “Livin’ on a High Note,” released in February. It, too, preaches love and taking the time to appreciate the people who matter most: family and friends.

Next came a spunky, funky cover of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” a minor hit for the Staple Singers in 1984. As it did most of the night, her trio mustered a rousing groove, sounding like a band twice its size.

Staples’ childhood nickname was Bubbles, now an apt description of her personality. Throughout the set, she chatted with her band mates and people in the crowd, including some family members, often jousting with them good-naturedly. She said of one audience member she called her cousin: “He’s from St. Louis, so you know he don’t know how to act.”

Before “Freedom March,” a Staple Singers’ song inspired by the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., in 1965, she reminded the crowd she was a “soldier and witness” in that march, “the big march.”

After that came “Love and Trust,” a song from “Take Us Back,” which includes songs written by a variety of well-known songwriters, including Ben Harper (who wrote “Love and Trust”), Nick Cave, Valerie June, Justin Vernon (or Bon Iver) and M. Ward, her producer.

She would sing June’s song, the inspirational “High Note,” which featured some dandy four-part harmonies, and Vernon’s “Dedicated”.

Staples sang background on “Friendship,” a song about love and togetherness that her father, the late Pops Staples, started and turned over to Mavis to finish. A swampy, bluesy cover of another protest song, “For What It’s Worth” resonated lyrically: “A thousand people in the street / Singing songs and carrying signs / Mostly saying ‘Hooray for our side.’ 

The crowd stood, clapped, danced and sang-along to the joyous “I’ll Take You There,” a No. 1 hit for the Staple Singers in 1972, a song that casts an irresistible uplifting charm.

For the encore, Staples and her ensemble were joined by opener Nick Lowe for a gospel-blues version of the Band’s “The Weight.” After what preceded it, that one felt a bit anti-climactic, though it didn’t extinguish what Staples and her band had already wrought: a sense of optimism and faith in love.

Nick Lowe: For more than an hour, he strummed a guitar and sang songs pulled from his substantial catalog. The set list included “Stoplight Roses,” “Long-Limbed Girl,” “What’s Shakin’ on the Hill,” “House for Sale,” “The Beast in Me,” “Cruel to Be Kind,” “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” and “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” which aroused a big ovation from a crowd that appreciated its titular message.

Timothy Finn: 816-234-4781, @phinnagain