One of the things that makes my peripatetic life bearable is the huge collection of music I carry with me on my travels. As much as I may dread the hours I have to spend cramping my legs in airline seating, I have a briefcase full of MP3s of every describable (and some indescribable) mode of music to ease the day and keep me going. Still, it was with some modicum of dread that I looked forward to flying back from Santa Barbara to State College, PA, for a round of meetings and chores.
Until, that is, I ran into Stevie Wonder in the Los Angeles airport. While wrestling my bags through the terminal, I found my path blocked by a large man having his photo taken with a smaller man. It was only as I was squeezing past them in the crowd that I realized I was squeezing past Stevie Wonder. At LAX, our usual procedure is to act as if we don't see celebrities (I have, for example, ignored Salma Hayek [well, sort of ignored her while still staring at her] under similar circumstances), but I had to say hello at least. So I did. Stevie is just a few months older than me, and has been, ever since he had a hit record and I didn't when we were both 12 years old, in some small way responsible for my feeling that I was already an underachiever and had to hurry up and produce something significant to make up for it. Mr. Morris, to use his given surname, found that thought amusing and graciously spent a few minutes talking with me about music. Turned out he was on his way north for a concert that evening in Saratoga. From what I hear on the recording of that concert I acquired a few days later, Stevie is still at the top of his form during his first tour in ten years.
Afterwards, while I was sitting in the terminal waiting for my flight, a young woman in a blue blouse and carrying a violin case came and sat beside me. She was shortly joined by two other women in blue blouses, also carrying violin cases. When yet another woman in blue appeared carrying a guitar case, I had to ask. Turns out this was an all-women Mariachi group on their way to Washington, D.C. We had a nice conversation about the San Jose Mariachi Festival which I used to attend, and which they were scheduled to play at this year. As we were boarding the plane, I learned that they were performing that night at the Smithsonian Institution. I told them I knew they'd find a welcoming audience in D.C.
This all made my own business seem just a bit on the banal side. But then I got to State College only to discover that Mavis Staples was scheduled to appear at the renovated State Theater the very next night. I got on the phone and, sure enough, there were still tickets available. (Most in State College that weekend were occupied with the upcoming Notre Dame game.) I was able to get an excellent seat (second row right), and was there in my place when Mavis, who I have been listening to since I was about 12 years old (notice a theme here?) took to the stage. Back in the day of my first listening, and not all that long after Stevie's first great hits, I bought a Staples Singers LP, took it home, and dropped the needle of our pitiful Silvertone stereo on the record. The first thing that I heard was the scorching "ARE YOU SURE?" I've been listening to that song (you can hear it again on the recently restored SOUL TO SOUL film and soundtrack) and to the voice of Mavis Staples ever since.
The concert began with DOWN IN MISSISSIPPI, a J.B. Lenoir tune that Mavis used to sing with her father. The Staples were from Chicago, not Mississippi, but it was in Chicago that they got to know J.B., and it was partly in tribute to their blues neighbors that this song became part of the repertoire. Then Staples moved through a series of the earlier staple masterpieces, including FREEDOM HIGHWAY and KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE. There was also a sweet reprise of THE WEIGHT, which you can see the Staple Singers perform with The Band in the film THE LAST WALTZ. It was only as the show came to a close that Mavis launched into the two most recognizable hits from the period of the Staples Singers pop breakthrough, RESPECT YOURSELF and I'LL TAKE YOU THERE. By this point the small audience was on their feet and multiplying like loaves and fishes.
All through the night the band had been paying small tributes to Mavis's past with her family. The guitarist started out several songs with a note perfect impression of Pop Staples' signature tremolo guitar, and the male backup singer took Pops's singing parts with a pretty fair impression of Staples's voice as it had been in its prime. Even though Mavis has always been the lead voice of THE STAPLES SINGERS, and even though this tour was clearly her vehicle, there was never any doubt of the legacy she was keeping alive. Her sister Yvonne, as she pointed out, was on stage singing with her, keeping up a tradition of gospel and pop performance stretching over 57 years. For an encore, the ensemble reassembled to perform what Mavis announced was the first song Pops had ever taught his young family, WILL THE CIRCLE BE UNBROKEN? It wasn't hard to imagine Pops with his kids gathered in their Chicago living room almost six decades earlier, a smiling Mavis surprising them all with the strength of her child's voice, bringing them all home on a chorus of By and by, lord, by and by.
So, it wasn't such a bad journey after all. I walked out, thinking of my flight home, and humming: there's a better home a-waiting / in the sky, lord, in the sky.