Mavis Staples’ personality radiated from the stage to every seat in Campbell Hall this past Tuesday night. Considering the length of time that she has been singing – about half of a century – her voice still manages to express volumes of emotion and meaning. Her performance was spectacular, which spoke of her considerable experience in the entertainment industry, as well as the technical skill of her talented and soulful backing musicians. Her band was showcased late in the set with solos from the bassist, guitarist and drummer. The jams provided a shocking stylistic changeup, featuring far more interesting licks than the stock gospel accompaniment that they had been playing during the beginning of the set. Overall though, the songs seemed to lack any real motivational or instructive functions.
Mavis Staples is an acclaimed gospel singer who began singing at churches with her family’s vocal group in the 1950s. Referred to as “God’s Greatest Hitmakers,” the Staples worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and quickly became the musical voice of King’s Civil Rights Movement. Given her position historically within the movement, one would expect some attention to be paid to the political and racial turmoil of the present, but Staples’ commentary and songs lacked any overtly political content. The majority of her material, which dealt mostly with her personal faith in God, seemed to have drifted away from the realm of political relevance.
Her dedication of one song to the victims of Hurricane Katrina fell flat. This could be due, in part, to my own background as an unbeliever, or simply my association with a younger, less socially active generation. As a member of that generation, I was in the minority in the audience, which comprised mostly older, gray or balding Santa Barbara residents. Still, I will say that I was not particularly roused by Staples’ performance to fight the injustices that still plague our nation: Institutionalized racism – as shown by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s fumble in New Orleans – economic disparity along racial lines and our government’s continued dedication to foreign policy debacles. In a postmodern age plagued with cynicism and anxiety, I could not connect to her songs about love, personal faith and triumph.
On the other hand, Taj Mahal astounded listeners with the simultaneous simplicity and complexity of his music. From a simply-structured blues riff to the “hula blues” – a fusion of “regular” blues with the Hawaiian lap steel guitar – Mahal and company performed a wide assortment of musical genres and styles.
Mahal grew up in Springfield, Mass. and later moved to Los Angeles to cut his teeth in the music world. Early in his career he opened for such legends as Otis Redding, Sam the Sham and the Temptations. Since then, he has worked with Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Bessie Jones. He has earned nine Grammy nominations, of which he won two: the Grammy for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 1997 (Se