Nearing the end of her all-star 80th birthday concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday, Mavis Staples stopped to express her joy to the crowd.
“You can’t do nothing with me,” she said, between sips of hot tea. “I’m just above the clouds.”
Thankfully, she’d brought everyone in the house along with her, making it a perfect setup for her performance of the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.” The 1972 Stax Records funk burner hasn’t lost an ounce of its relevance, with the lines “ain’t no smilin’ faces/lyin’ to the races” underscoring a struggle that’s still playing out nearly 50 years later.
One of music’s mightiest, most vital voices, Staples sang of change and progress throughout the evening, the second of three 80th birthday shows for the soul/gospel legend and a benefit for the Newport Festivals Foundation. Joining her in the celebration were a diverse group of performers that included Margo Price, Jason Isbell, Nick Lowe and Elle King.
Fellow Mississippi native Marty Stuart, playing Pops Staples’ guitar, touched on the first time he heard the Staple Singers’ rendition of the gospel classic “Uncloudy Day.” “You could hear it coming out of peoples houses. You could hear it coming out of barbed-wire fences. You were everywhere,” he said, before he and his band the Superlatives launched into a soul-deep rendition replete with spine-tingling harmony and Stuart’s rumbling guitar.
From there, Staples — whose new album We Get By comes out Friday, May 16th — got funky, shouted the blues and continually reached for a higher place. She reprised her family’s version of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” and got an assist from the Lone Bellow on a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” Singer Nicole Atkins came to the stage for a greasy rendition of 2016’s “Love and Trust,” after which Staples reminded the crowd that there’s always more work to do.
“We’ve been trying to find it since the Sixties,” she said. “Here it is 2019 and we’re still trying to find love and trust. It’s all right, we’ll find it.”
Jason Isbell took a turn as guitar hero, showing off his flashy licks and singing a few words on the bass-heavy “Change” while Staples patted him on the shoulder. English singer-songwriter Nick Lowe dropped by to assist on a lovely, countrified “Far Celestial Shore.” Elle King, Sheryl Crow and Wynonna all had turns roaring alongside Staples.
Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi All-Stars provided one of the night’s high points, lending some molten guitar and smoky vocals to “Freedom Road.” He was assisted by soulful duo the War and Treaty, who turned the civil rights anthem into a rafter-rattling hymn of salvation with their ecstatic shouts.
Even so, it turned out to be Margo Price who delivered the night’s biggest moment. The true-blue country performer, who’s due to welcome her next child at any moment, went toe-to-toe with Staples on a groove-heavy interpretation of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” that saw the two women belting the traditional hymn with every ounce of strength in their lungs and being rewarded with a standing ovation.
Before they sang the hopeful “You Are Not Alone,” Staples couldn’t resist cracking a joke about her age with folk duo the Milk Carton Kids, who aren’t even half that number.
“If I tell you my secret, you might live to be 80,” she said, laughing. “I’ll still be around when you get to be 80.”