14 Apr 2019

Mavis and Joni

From New Horizons, 5:00 pm on 14 April 2019

William Dart celebrates the joy of live music with two new concert recordings: Mavis Staples Live in London, and a full scale 75th birthday party for Joni Mitchell in Los Angeles.

Joni 75, cover image

Joni 75, cover image Photo: Decca Records

Auckland fans of Mavis Staples will be impatient for April 23rd to come around, when the American singer takes over the city’s Civic Theatre, supported by our own Tami Neilson.

It’s a stop-over gig between the Byron Bay Bluesfest and an appearance at New York’s legendary Apollo Theatre. Perhaps Staples’ newly released album Live in London offers a hint of what New Zealand might expect.

It's the sort of album that has you almost feeling the warmth exuding from the speakers, as the singer gives us songs that are so obviously near and dear to her.

But those familiar with her work over the past decades will know that this woman has always been switched on to the best of what’s being written at the time.

This new London set features songs by Jeff Tweedy, Ben Harper, and Benjamin Booker and also reminds us, that, way back in 1984, Pops, Mavis, and sisters Cleotha and Yvonne, made the charts with a number from the David Byrne songbook.

Mavis Staples is obviously very fond of the song "Slippery People" — she included it in her 75th birthday concert, singing along with Arcade Fire.

And here, a few years on, with the way the world is turning, it does get one thinking how deviously these lyrics slip into our Trumpian times

A live performance is always something to be savoured. You can almost feel the folks in the Union Chapel getting goosebumps with Rick Holmstrom’s tangy guitar solo, not to mention that rather neat way in which David Byrne’s chiseled vocal refrains are transformed into funky vocalese.

I’m not sure of the band’s line-up in Auckland come April 23rd, but if it’s this fivesome, then there are no worries. And I wonder whether Staples will do the same ingenious crediting that she did in London, before she segues into family nostalgia with the Staple Singers’ "Reach Out Touch a Hand".

Playing personal favourites on Mavis Staples’ new live set, I’d have to go for a cover of a Funkadelic classic that we first heard from that band in 1971 – a year in which the Staple Singers had just gone to Muscle Shoals and boldly slipped songs by Smokey Robinson and the Bee Gees onto their new album.

The Funkadelic track, "Can you get to that", is very much shared with backing vocalist Vicki Randle, whom Staples playfully and affectionately tags as Squeaky Randle when she acknowledged the band in that last track.

Randle is far, far from squeaky of course and they’re a solid pair of soul sisters with Donny Gerrard on the side ... a far cry from the shuffling singalong of the original Funkadelic recording.

If you can’t experience music live, then the next best thing is a concert film, reminding some perhaps of the first time that they might have experienced the phenomenon of Mavis Staples. Think back to 1978, and The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s big screen capturing of the final concert of The Band with a radiant Mavis Staples taking over the saga of "The Weight" from The Band’s singing drummer, Levon Helm.

The Last Waltz also gave some of us the rare opportunity to catch Joni Mitchell in flight, not singing "Woodstock" or "Both Sides Now", but the much more up-to-date "Coyote" from her 1976 album, Hejira.  It's a freewheeling, almost stream of consciousness tale of problematic relationship navigation. The bonuses included some telling musical decoration from the boys in The Band and a literally out-of-sight Dr John on conga drums, deputizing for Ms Bobbye Hall on the original recording.

You can now see Joni Mitchell on screen, caught 40 years later at her 75th birthday concert but she’s not singing. She’s in the audience at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, while friends and colleagues salute her on stage.

And, thanks to the wonders of live casts of overseas theatre, opera and concert events, you can enjoy the LA celebration in your local cinema.

And there are a few surprises. One is hearing that last song, "Coyote", taken up by a fervent Glen Hansard, whom some will remember as Outspan Foster, one of the young Irish soul fanatics in the 1991 movie The Commitments.

He’s not following the uber-cool Joni Mitchell model. There’s some raw passion here, with Coyote’s propositioning taking a completely different angle.

Not all the performances surprise. I didn’t much care for Diana Krall emoting her way through the song "Amelia" at the keyboard or, for that matter, James Taylor skating down the "River", buoyed by the slickest backing band that the City of Angels can dish up.

A grizzled Rufus Wainwright crooning through the song "Blue" is another missable, but I’m still deciding just how successful the pairing of the venerable Kris Kristofferson and Brandi Carlile is. They create their own weird musical twosome with the song "A Case of You" which, like the best of outsider music, somehow makes a direct hit on the heart.

Of course there are favorites amongst the 16 tracks on the Joni 75 album, but for everyone there will be omissions. While one might understand why no-one picked up a track from Mitchell’s 1979 Charles Mingus tribute, it would have been nice to have had her 1975 album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns been represented.

The Joni 75 movie does catch and add to the zesty partying in the two songs that open and close the disc. While most of the musicians involved get on board the closing "Big Yellow Taxi", the opening "Dreamland" is one of two numbers from East LA’s favourite band, Los Lobos.

"Dreamland" is a song from what must be one of Mitchell’s most explorative albums, her 1977 Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.

In the original, there was a certain Afro sensibility going on but here it’s invigoratingly Latino, a sort of poetically heightened "La Bamba".  

Vocals are handled by the spunky Marisol Hernandez (aka La Marisoul) of the band La Santa Cecilia, with the flamboyant Chaka Khan edging in by the second verse.

And, as if there aren’t enough south of the border rhythms emanating from the stage, when you see the movie you discover that one exotic percussion effect comes from Xochi Flores tap-dancing on her own little podium. What better birthday celebration could there be and, best of all, thanks to the movie, we’ve all been invited.

Music Details

'Song title' (Composer) – Performers
Album title

'Breakdown' (Petty) – Tom Petty & The Heatrbreakers
An American Treasure

'What You Gonna Do' (Pop Staples) – Mavis Staples
Live in London

'Happy Birthday' (Trad) – Mavis Staples
Live in London

'Slippery People' (Byrne) – Mavis Staples
Live in London

'Reach Out Touch a Hand' (Banks et al) – Mavis Staples
Live in London

'Can You Get to That' (Clinton, Harris) – Mavis Staples
Live in London

'The Weight' (Robertson) – Mavis Staples, The Band
The Last Waltz

'Coyote' (Mitchell) – Joni Mitchell, The Band
The Last Waltz

'Coyote' (Mitchell) – Glen Hansard
Joni 75

'A Case of You' (Mitchell) – Kris Kristofferson, Brandi Carlile
Joni 75

'Dreamland' (Mitchell) – La Marisoul, Los Lobos
Joni 75

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