Livin’ On A High Note
There are few, if any, American voices that can be mentioned in the same breath as Mavis Staples. From her beginnings with her family as The Staple Singers, to solo recordings such as the Ry Cooder-produced We’ll Never Turn Back or her pair of Jeff Tweedy productions You Are Not Alone (Grammy winner) and One True Vine, Staples hasn’t forgotten her past as an activist nor been content to take the easy road of the oldies circuit. No, Mavis Staples has kept the dream alive in her own way, by continually changeling herself and her fans, and her new album, Livin’ On A High Note continues the work.
For this album, Staples sent out a request to today’s more meaningful songwriters, asking them to write her a song, and the results show both the writers- as well as the singer- innate sense of what Mavis Staples is all about. Starting with Benjamin Booker’s “Take Us Back”, which sounds both retro and contemporary at the same time, Staples is still leading the fight in fine voice. The record was skillfully produced by M. Ward (who also plays and has two songs on the disc), and he was able to capture something of the great Stax-era sound that defined The Staple Singers, while sounding as fresh as today. The record gets its title from the song “High Note” by Valerie June, and in Staples hands it becomes a spiritual, bluesy anthem, with Staples long-time guitarist Rick Holmstrom on electric.
The rest of the record has offerings from Ben Harper with “Love And Trust”, “Action” by Tune-Yards, Son Little’s “One Love” and the magnificent “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me” from Nick Cave. Every song brings the writers unique perspective on both the legacy and power of Mavis Staples, but in the end, it sounds like no one else. There is only one Mavis Staples, and we’re gifted to have her still fighting the good fight, and sounding like the young woman who reached the charts with her sisters and father in 1956 on “Uncloudy Day”. All hail the queen.