On Wednesday night, Mavis Staples and Joan Osborne delivered a serious dose of “Solid Soul” to the 92nd Street Y. Osborne, a professed Staples devotee who described the elder singer as one of her biggest “musical idols of all time,” opened the show with a roughly forty-minute set of her laid-back rock. Osborne, who recently reissued a twentieth-anniversary version of her debut smash, Relish, performed several of the better-known songs from that album, including “St. Teresa” and her signature hit, “One of Us.” Elsewhere, she covered Slim Harpo and the Grateful Dead, turning the latter’s “Brokedown Palace” into a slow-burning soul ballad. Onstage, Osborne merged her subdued, blues-inflected arrangements with impressive vocal theatrics, often taking hold of a tune just as it was about to end and bringing it somewhere unexpected with her wordless intonations.
After Osborne, who shared Staples’s touring band, finished her set, the players remained onstage, playing an r&b instrumental until Staples, the star of the evening, arrived. With contemporaries like Aretha Franklin seldom performing in public, Staples has become in part a living monument to a long-lost tradition, one of the last cultural links to Fifties gospel and r&b. Since her Grammy Award–winning 2010 album, You Are Not Alone, Staples has been working nonstop, releasing a 2013 follow-up and an EP earlier this year all while touring nearly constantly. “This tour is a long one,” Staples said after just a few songs on Wednesday night. With an HBO documentary and new studio album both set for 2016, it doesn’t appear as though Staples plans on slowing down anytime soon.
She took the stage to the Staple Singers mainstay “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me),” setting the tone of inclusive celebration and peaceful activism that ran throughout her main set. Performing with her longtime band of Donny Gerrard, Stephen Hodges, Rick Holmstrom, Vicki Randle, and Jeff Turmes, Staples sang a mix of old Staple Singers hits and more recent material from her late-career resurgence. Staples preached, told stories about Etta James, and made fun of the audience when her mention of her hometown of Chicago received only a smattering of applause. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “The Cubs didn’t beat the Mets!”
Staples has preached and sung about the relentless struggle for freedom for the past sixty years, having inspired numberless disciples along the way — one of whom, Kendrick Lamar, happened to have performed in New York earlier in the week. Like Lamar’s, Staples’s music can become sugarcoated in a live setting, received with a happy-go-lucky veneer wholly absent from the music itself. As Sixties r&b and soul has seen a resurgence in contemporary pop, the Staple Singers’ confrontational anthems of liberation and struggle have found a current, peaceful home onstage. Staples remains eternally committed to them, unwilling to cede their utter centrality to her live show and artistic purpose. “The whole wide world is wondering what is wrong with the United States,” Staples sang fifty years ago, in “Freedom Highway,” a song, she explained, that the Stapleses wrote for the march to Selma.
Staples was most spirited during her set’s most politically charged moments, be it on the civil rights anthem “Freedom Highway” or “Fight,” from her latest EP. “I won’t turn around,” she barked repeatedly toward the end of “Freedom Highway,” perfectly summing up her half-century-long commitment to black liberation and equality.
Perhaps because the songs never received the mainstream success they deserved, Staples delivers her Sixties civil rights anthems without a trace of the boomer nostalgia that so often accompanies contemporary performances of protest/folk music of the same era. Still, it was hard not to get the sense that the protest and struggle at the crux of Staples’s music might have been lost on a decent portion of the crowd, who reserved their biggest applause and standing ovations for set-closing crossover pop hits like “The Weight” and “I’ll Take You There.”
Staples is now 76, and her voice has grown richer and gained untold depth over her many years of singing — but it has also become harder to ignore how her age has begun to restrict her mobility and stamina. During her headlining set, which lasted only an hour and spanned ten songs, Staples took repeated breaks to sit down, singing an aching, hushed rendition of “You Are Not Alone” from her onstage throne. Nevertheless, she was in typically high spirits, cracking jokes and poking fun at her own age compared to that of her opening act. “She’s so sassy,” Staples said of Osborne, who came out to sing during Staples’s final two numbers. “I’m going to stick to me, sassy and granny.”