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Music Reviews

Mavis Staples: Have A Little Faith

Label: Alligator
Sound/Style: Spirited and soul-soaked gospel/blues blend

By Steve Morley

(UMCom) -- For decades, husky-voiced Mavis Staples had been most at home, musically speaking, with her dad and siblings in The Staple Singers. With her kin alongside her, she could do no wrong, testifying in a penetrating gospel style both before and after the quartet’s crossover success in the 1970s. As a solo artist, she’s struggled to find a marketable style and persona despite working with producers including Curtis Mayfield and Prince.

On Have A Little Faith, her debut for blues label Alligator Records, she takes inspiration from her late father Roebuck "Pops" Staples and delivers the strongest and most confident record of her career.

This is Staples’ first album of original material in well over a decade (her 1996 effort was a tribute to Mahalia Jackson) as well as her first new release since losing Pops late in 2000 due to complications from a concussion. Rising on the power of both his enduring musical legacy and his faith-filled life, Staples points to the family patriarch’s massive influence both directly and indirectly on a dozen tracks that speak to issues of God, eternity, family and the threads connecting all people.

Along with co-producer and songwriter Jim Tullio, Staples so effectively blurs the line between blues and gospel that you can’t detect the point where - as the well-worn cliché goes - Saturday night ends and Sunday morning begins. She comes by the two-pronged style naturally - her dad developed his parched, pungent six-string twang alongside blues innovators Charley Patton and Robert Johnson before carrying the sound with him into a gospel career and, later, the pop-soul hybrid that landed the family on the pop charts. He looms largest on "Pops’ Recipe," which distills a lifetime’s worth of godly counsel ("don’t subscribe to bigotry, hypocrisy, duplicity/respect humanity/at every opportunity/be the best that you can be") and sets it to a fierce, slippery Memphis soul backbeat.

A call for multi-cultural solidarity, along with the regard for human life that informed The Staples’ "Respect Yourself," emerges into an overarching theme on the album. From "In Times Like These" to "Ain’t No Better Than You" and its hip-hop-derived counterpart "At The End Of The Day," the need for togetherness between souls, sects and sexes is emphasized, as well as the inherent value in every individual life.

Staples backs up her stance by citing today’s troubled times and the subsequent need to find support in broad-based community. She links all these notions to her foundation of Christian faith on "God Is Not Sleeping," powerfully capping the ballad with these lines, spoken in a hushed and compelling preacher’s whisper: "[I]n every corner of the world, while we are sleeping, He is still working." Her version of "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" is not only a hip-shaking revelation, it tweaks the southern gospel favorite into a symbol of intercultural unity, erecting a musical bridge that connects the Mississippi delta to the Appalachian Mountains via the African plains.

"A Dying Man’s Plea" is given extra resonance by Pops Staples’ own lyrical additions to the blues standard, which asks "that my grave be kept clean." On this number as well as the semi-somber, chant-like "Step Into The Light," death is addressed with the unflinching confidence that only comes from knowing you’ve reserved a seat on the Train to Glory.

"Step Into The Light," which urges its listeners to "walk on through," is an extension of The Staple Singers’ 1973 invocation of the afterlife, "I’ll Take You There." Here, backed by the Dixie Hummingbirds, she makes good on that earlier invitation by kicking open the heavenly portals - at least, as much as a mortal can manage.

Those who prefer to hear the Gospel peppered with irresistibly funky, roots-based grooves will count themselves blessed that Mavis Staples is indeed a mere mortal, capable of bristling, earthy intonations no angel could touch on Have A Little Faith. One can only assume that this twenty-first century link to the Staple Singers tradition would have made Pops very, very proud.

Steve Morley is a free-lance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn.



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