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Still Standing

Mavis Staples continues to raise a voice for rights




The record-buying public has recently been faced with a welcome quandary, what with the recorded re-emergence of classic soul singers like Bettye LaVette, Howard Tate, Solomon Burke and Koko Taylor. The background stories are touching—a talented singer with a few hits long ago is forgotten by the major record labels for decades and stages a successful comeback aided by a tasteful, purity-capturing producer—and the music is almost overwhelmingly enjoyable, if not top-notch. Acknowledging the richness and artistic wealth of the soul resurrection, one album stands alone in a field growing ever crowded: the incredible We'll Never Turn Back by gospel singer Mavis Staples. She appears with Charlie Musselwhite Oct. 11 at the Napa Valley Opera House.

Recent events in Mississippi and Louisiana have brought civil rights issues back to our front pages, and Staples, more than any other singer, is intensely qualified to bring it back to our ears. Her family group, the Staple Singers, exemplify the beautiful confluence so common to the climate of the 1960s. Mixing gospel soul with the political bent of the folk scene, the Staples emboldened the Civil Rights movement with songs like "Long Walk to D.C." and "When Will We Be Paid?" that dug far deeper than Joan Baez or Peter, Paul & Mary. When Stax Records signed the Staples with Booker T. & the MG's as a backing band in 1968, the message came out of the churches and streets and onto the airwaves, helping change, or at least alter, the attitudes of millions.

Mavis Staples has stayed active, but it took musicologist Ry Cooder to convince her to return to her roots. We'll Never Turn Back revisits songs of the Civil Rights struggle—many of which actually precede the 1960s—and in the hands of Staples, the Freedom Singers, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Cooder's own band, they are transformed from important but no less dusty artifacts ("This Little Light of Mine") into powerful new statements of hope and cultural revitalization.

On the album's title track, amid a looming ambiance, Staples inflects an urgent reminder of how far the movement for racial equality has marched and how imperative it is to continue undeterred. Every breath between phrases, every vibration, every tic in the back of her well-worn throat is nakedly presented. Her conviction is overwhelming. Against all odds, it could reduce even a certain district attorney in Jena, La., to tears.

Mavis Staples performs with Charlie Musselwhite and the North Mississippi All-Stars on Thursday, Oct. 11, at the Napa Valley Opera House. 1030 Main St., Napa. 8pm. $40&–$45. 707.226.7372.

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