By Mark Guarino
Too bad the 32 million viewers of “American Idol,” plus the bored Brit, the woozy ex-choreographer and that dude who calls everyone “dawg,” couldn’t all cram into the wood-paneled confines of the Hideout Monday. There, under the tutelage of Mavis Staples, they would have learned how mimicking deep resources of suffering and joy may ratchet up sales at Wal-Mart but, if you happen to be shallow, are just neatly crafted affectations.
Shallow is not in Staple’s repertoire. The Chicago gospel-soul veteran taped an upcoming live album at the eclectic and eccentric music club tucked into the Elston Ave. industrial corridor. While performing a 14-song set that canvassed her 52-year career, Staples sang with a voice that has long distinguished her from the R&B greats of her era and those that reach for that crown today. On songs ranging from Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” to durable spirituals like “This Little Light of Mine,” Staples used innate timing and husky fervor for a delivery that climbed inspirational heights but were also heavy in the groove. At 68, she is remarkably as potent a singer as ever.
A limited capacity (150) room meant a special opportunity to hear Staples work up close. Her nuanced, unvarnished singing is not limited to simple, open-mouthed belting; for her, songs are moaned, growled, cried and exclaimed according to how they feel. Her six-member band, which included three back-up singers (that was her sister Yvonne on the left), recreated songs from “We’ll Never Turn Back” (Anti), the most popular album of her solo career, released last year. The sound of that album — loose, syncopated beats, snaky guitars — transformed “Down in Mississippi” an ancient blues tune by J. B. Lenoir, into a sultry, nocturnal dance, and “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the labor movement folk traditional, into a gospel testimonial.
While the stories that accompanied the songs recounted her memories from the Civil Rights era, a time when the Staples Singers became integral to its soundtrack, none were as affecting as her performance of those lasting hurts. On “I Am Waiting for My Child to Come Home,” an old gospel spiritual, she dispensed with the microphone to channel a mother’s lament directly to the rafters, a moment that produced some tears, especially onstage. But even at her most vulnerable, Staples presented a tough determination and joyful attitude, similar to the songs that made her and her family so famous.
Recording a live album at a rock club with low ceilings and stuffed swordfish nailed to the walls was not lost on her. “It’s a double treat. We’re at the Hideout and we’re at home,” she said, later adding: “we couldn’t really find it.”