In the past 18 months of pandemic living, many hours that might otherwise have been spent at live shows have gone instead to revisiting the home archives, culling through piles of CDs and LPs, magazines and videos to simply entertain and also to “prune the bonsai” that is my collection of 40+ some years (others might call it Swedish Death Cleaning).
One of the revelations this pursuit has brought me is just how fickle the music business is, not just for a scribe like me, who no longer makes a living in music journalism, but for those on the actual front lines – writing, playing, putting their souls out there for consumption by an ADHD public. So many of those who enjoy cover stories and exclamation points (Hot New Name!) one day are reduced to tiny print and question marks (Who is That?) soon after.
So when I share a reference to Mavis Staples as “one of America’s national musical treasures,” you best believe that I believe the lady has earned it. Among my family’s other isolation activities, we watched Questlove’s terrific “Summer of Soul” documentary. There was 18 y.o. Mavis, alongside her Staples Singers family, belting out gospel-inspired, soulful tunes with an emphasis on social justice. And in the over half-century since, Mavis Staples has only grown more soulful and socially relevant, still adding her literal voice to just causes while expanding her repertoire in collaborations with Jeff Tweedy, Norah Jones, Run The Jewels, and many more.
When a publicist asked if I’d like to cover the great lady’s concert appearance at a benefit for JusticeAid2021 (more on that later), you bet I jumped. Which meant hubby and I had our first DC concert date night in nearly two years to visit the beautifully restored Lincoln Theatre. After some initial panic (darling forgot his proof-of-vaccination card and had to scramble to find an adequate substitute on his cell phone), we settled into the well-buffered seating (the worthy show was far from sold-out) for a night that lived up to our own high expectations.
The good/great news is that Mavis Staples’s soulful growl is as strong as ever, as is her indomitable spirit, even when singing songs of overcoming hardship, like “Change,” or “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” (announced with some memories of Staples’ association with Martin Luther King). Her cover choices ran from Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That” to Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” and a transcendent “Slippery People,” which had much of the crowd up from their seats to enjoy the infectious groove, propelled by a trio of players and two singers who provided a bedrock of masterful R&B. Guitarist Rick Holmstrom was particularly impressive on a few solos, and his playful interactions with Staples appeared rooted in a long and fruitful affiliation.
And now for the bad news. Staples coughed frequently between songs and downed at least three servings of something (hot tea?) delivered to the stage by a concerned aide. An exhilarating mid-set version of “Respect Yourself” ended surprisingly quickly which, in these distressed days, was particularly unsettling. Staples joked about looking for a “doctor in the house” and reassured the audience that she was simply fighting a cold, so I will take her at her word, while still asking the gods of all that is holy to protect this living legend. As I mentioned up top, such icons are truly few. By the evening’s finale, a rousing, no holds-barred, call-and-response singalong of “I’ll Take You There,” we felt a little less worried.
Opening the show was singer/songwriter/mandolin player Amy Helm and, if the name seems familiar, it’s because her dad, Levon, was the much-loved drummer and often singer of Americana legends The Band. Amy was born in 1970, (the same year Stage Fright arrived) and she grew up in the Woodstock, N.Y. home that had its own recording studio, known as The Barn.
Amy started singing as a teen, and was a full-on professional in her 20s, playing in various groups (the folkish Ollabelle was one) and on her dad’s post-Band solo albums (her contributions to Dirt Farmer earned her a 2007 Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album). As befits a musician who grew up among some of the best players of the times, Amy had a crackerjack four-piece band playing with her, providing a solid foundation for each tune, lovely harmonies, and the occasional sparkling solo.
Helm spoke of her father lovingly before a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City,” explaining that it was one of the songs she’d perform with him during the ongoing series of “Midnight Ramble” concerts he held at the Barn and on tour. The poignant “Cotton and the Cane,” a co-write with Mary Gauthier, from Amy’s third album, What the Flood Leaves Behind,” released earlier this year, was introduced with a sobering tone, since it addresses the dark side of the unconventional, highly creative environment that was her youth – watching talented, troubled people struggle with addiction.
Still, the majority of Helm’s set was upbeat, as she gushed her joy in sharing a bill with Staples, a woman who’s clearly an influence, alongside Aretha, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell and Helm’s own mom Libby Titus, a highly regarded performer, whose other romantic/musical partners included Dr. John and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen. Helm’s heritage is strong, and she’s serving it well.
A side note: My pal and former editor, Jeff Tamarkin, wrote a great article for Relix.com about Amy Helm (cribbed from for this story!) so check it out.
And while you’re clicking, check out more about Justice Aid2021, for whom the show was organized. This year, following the murder of George Floyd, the DC-based group is focusing on” police accountability and community empowerment by reimagining public safety.” The Neighborhood Defender Service’s Police Accountability/Community Empowerment (PACE) Program will receive 100% of proceeds from the concert. And donations are welcome anytime.