I listen to hundreds of new albums in a year, and when you do that, it’s really easy to fall into a critical lockstep and to start feeling like you’ve heard everything worthwhile there is to hear. So when something comes along and unexpectedly just knocks you sideways, it’s a great thing. I didn’t plan on going to see Candi Staton last night, but I was out drinking with friends, and it turned out that Sean Fennessey had two guest-list spots for her Bowery Ballroom show. I’d barely heard of Staton; all I knew, really, was that she was an old Southern soul and gospel singer playing her first New York show in twenty years and that Sean totally loves her. My reference points for Memphis soul pretty much begin and end with Dusty in Memphis and the Willie Hutch samples on Three 6 Mafia records, so I didn’t know a thing about her long history with abusive records, her turn toward disco when Southern soul started to fade, or her decades working the gospel circuit; it’s all stuff that I’m just reading now, after the fact. His Hands, her first secular album in forever, came out earlier this year on Astralwerks, and somehow I didn’t even notice. So I walked in blind and walked out converted, and it’s pretty great when that happens.
Staton was actually never Memphis soul; she’s from Alabama, and she recorded most of her early hits at the Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, with the house band that played on a lot of Aretha Franklin’s best stuff. Someone better informed than me would have to tell you about the differences between Memphis and Alabama soul, but I think it might have something to do with the country influence that creeps into Staton’s work. Country and R&B exist in completely parallel worlds these days, and they never acknowledge each other’s existence, but in the early 70s, Staton turned Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” into a swollen, stormy roar, absolutely singing Wynette under the table; I wish stuff like this still happened. When she sang it last night, there wasn’t even the slightest acknowledgment that maybe there’s something weird about that. She also sang Merle Haggard’s “You Don’t Have Far to Go,” which she covers beautifully on His Hands, and Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto,” telling the crowd how she got a congratulatory letter from Elvis when she released her version more than thirty years ago. I love old-school entertainer stories like that, veterans looking back on their long-past intersections with a sort of glowing warmth. Staton is a total professional, and it was weirdly jarring to see such an unflappable and seasoned veteran in a club where I’m used to seeing shitty indie bands. Her eight-piece band was pretty great, too; they managed to keep their sweaty intensity up even when they swung into her disco stuff; those songs sound pretty antiseptic on record, but the band kept the grooves warm and constant while Staton worked her lived-in rasp against their ebb-and-flow vamps. Even the part of the show where the band members all got to play solos, a bathroom-break moment at most shows, was spectacular. Staton introduced the drummer as her son: “He started playing at nine years old, used to drive me nuts.” And then he managed to play a longish drum solo without ever leaving the track’s pocket; that never happens.
But the show’s greatest moment came with “His Hands” the domestic-abuse song that Will Oldham wrote for Staton, a song she introduced with a spoken monologue just harrowing in its sickening force (“I know what it’s like to feel your face just to make sure it’s not broken”). Staton’s been doing gospel for longer than I’ve been alive, and she uses every one of the tricks she’s learned on the song, climbing through little peaks and valleys and slowly building up the song’s tension and pain until it gets to the gut-ripping crescendo at the end, the sort of moment that just sucks the breath right out of you. I get chills just thinking about it, and I was pretty much destroyed by the time it ended. But Staton wasn’t; she managed to segue from that song into “Young Hearts Run Free,” her cheesed-out disco hit, without saying a word or missing a beat. It’s a triumphant song, but for me it’ll always be tied up with Vondie Curtis-Hall wearing a dress in the Baz Luhrmann Romeo + Juliet, an image I’ve been trying to scrub from my brain for ten years now. From there, she finished up with another of her disco songs, “Victim.” When she came back for an encore, she went right back into “Victim”; it was like she and the band had been keeping the beat the whole time they were backstage.
Listening to His Hands today, it’s the sort of thing we expect from a returning veteran, a reverent classic-soul pastiche that succeeds on its own merits without ever reaching beyond its comfort zone. I like it, but I’m glad I saw her onstage before I heard the album; she brings a lot more joyous whoop to her live show than the record would have you believe. Part of what made Staton’s show amazing was its context. When people play genre hopscotch these days, they do it with the sort of self-conscious connect-the-dots mentality that gives us mash-ups and Beck and rappers using fake Jamaican accents. That’s fine; I like to see people stretching beyond their own experiences into the unknown (except when they suck at it). But it’s really striking to see a performer who’s managed to completely internalize and synthesize soul and gospel and country and disco to the point where it feels completely natural when she jumps from one to another. Maybe niche-marketing has turned every little subgenre into a world unto itself; maybe it’s too much to expect people to bridge those gaps without making a big deal out of it. But I’m really glad we still have people like Staton, artists who remember when these things didn’t exist on their own little islands. And it makes me wonder how many other Statons there are out there in the world, just waiting to be rediscovered.