Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Powerhouse performance

3 March 2020

Sandra Bowdler admires the passion, commitment and energy of legendary blues singer Mavis Staples.

Review: Perth Festival, Mavis Staples ·
Chevron Lighthouse, 1 March 2020 ·
Review by Sandra Bowdler ·

Mavis Staples has achieved almost legendary status as a blues and gospel singer over a long career that began in the 1950s, when she sang with her family group, the Staples Singers. They contributed greatly to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States during the 1960s, and Staples is still renowned as a civil rights activist.

Her concert for Perth Festival was not her first visit here. Now 80 years old, she seems not to have lost any of her enthusiasm, energy, passionate commitment – or vocal strength. While she said she felt tired at the end of the penultimate number, the rousing “No Time for Crying”, you just had to take her word for it.

In a basic black outfit with a hot pink overshirt and with her signature pudding basin haircut, Staples presented 75 minutes of solid blues numbers, a little from her more gospel-styled backlist, and mostly songs she had recently sung or recorded. (Her claim that there were new songs no one but us had ever heard didn’t seem to be quite true.)

From the opening number, “Take Us Back” to the final old favourite, “Eyes on the Prize”, Staples was a total powerhouse with her deep gravelly voice, some amazingly down-and-dirty notes (“Oh yeah” at the end of “Take Us Back”), her complete rapport with the audience, and being totally synced with her fellow performers.

“I might run for president myself!” Mavis Staples in concert at the Chevron Lighthouse. Photo: Marnie Richardson

Her small ensemble sounded much larger in richness and volume, including Staples’ long-term collaborator, lead guitarist and vocalist Rick Holmstrom, who provided every number with exciting guitar licks and traded hollers with Staples in the best blues tradition.

Backing singer Donny Gerrard is a similarly long-time associate with an amazing range, from deep growling bass to plangent tenor. Support vocals were also provided by Saundra Williams, whose brief solo in “Can You Get to That?” was warmly greeted. They were joined by James Greg Boaz on bass guitar and Steve Mugalian on drums.


Staples did not stint on the progressive front, with old favourites like “Respect Yourself” and newer numbers like “Brothers and Sisters”, culminating in “No Time for Crying”, with its emphatic lyric, “work to do, work to do”, and its line-up of social issues, particularly “motherless children”, which led to Staples’ vehement outcry: “I am going up to that White House and pull that guy by his red tie … I might run for president myself!”

Throughout the show her interaction with the mixed-age audience was a delight, in particular her big shout out to Perth after the first two items and a refrain from “Stronger”, claiming that “Nothin’ in the world is stronger than my love for Perth”.

Staples’ performance followed a support act by local singer-songwriter Lucy Peach on guitar, with a sidekick on bass. Though the crowd was still small, she engaged us with her strong voice and appealing dialogue. The intriguing quirkiness of her introductions was not quite borne out in the actual song lyrics, but clearly she is a talent to watch out for.

Pictured top: Mavis Staples with longtime collaborators, from left, Donny Gerrard and Rick Holmstrom. Photo: Marnie Richardson

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Author —
Sandra Bowdler

Sandra Bowdler is an archaeologist who has been writing about music for some twenty years, most recently for Opera magazine (UK), Bachtrack and Handel News. She is also the author of “Handel’s Operas in Australia, a performance history” Händel Jarhbuch (2017). Her favourite piece of playground equipment would be the picnic bench with smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne.

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