There can’t be too many joys in a performer’s life that would rank higher than being tapped, slapped and ultimately pummeled on the shoulder by an appreciative Mavis Staples. That happened a lot in a luminary-filled “Mavis & Friends” show Wednesday at L.A.’s Theatre at Ace Hotel, where the more impassioned guests quickly learned that it wouldn’t hurt to have warn shoulder pads, to prevent any bruises from a grinning host who sometimes had to get physical with shows of support for a guest’s wailing or guitar or horn shredding.
But it was Staples who insisted she was the battered one. “You’re gonna make me hurt myself,” she insisted to Brandi Carlile — the evening’s one previously unannounced guest — midway through a duet of “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend.” (“Make a friend, Brandi! Make a friend!” she kept insisting, no phrase too prosaic to become an insistent gospel shout in Staples’ hands.) That appeared to be something like a climax in a night of “Help me, somebody!” assists. So when her wingman announced that someone was about to come out who would really blow the roof off the succor, in so many words, you wondered you might’ve wondered what in the world he could be talking about.
He was talking about Trombone Shorty, who had the final solo guest turn of the night on “Who Told You That,” bringing a couple of moaning and exulting solos that whipped the crowd and Staples into the kind of frenzy that only a brass instrument that hasn’t been very much in favor for the last 50 years can. Given Stavis’ gospel pedigree and ongoing spiritual preoccupations, you don’t want to immediately leap to sexualized language to describe exactly what was happening on stage between Shorty and Staples, but when they got into a call-and-response what seemed like about 10 minutes into the instrumental break, there weren’t a lot of other comparisons that came to mind to describe it. Having shouted herself silly, Staples had to go sit down for a bit. “I’m out of breath. I got no more,” she told the audience. “You gonna make me run away from here. You gonna make me hurt myself.”
Hurt yourself, respect yourself — it’s literally all good in the positivist song canon that was being celebrated Wednesday night, although the ’60s songs and 2010s songs alike have undercurrents of social unrest and injustice that make the joy that cometh in the morning and late night more dear. As one of America’s foremost surviving emblems of the civil rights movement, Staples still gravitates toward material that gently kicks at enduring prejudices. Probably not that big a portion of the audience owns a copy of her fantastic 2017 album “If All I Was Was Black,” but when she sang a key song from it, “Build a Bridge,” with Phoebe Bridgers and Lucius, the lines ““=When I say my life matters, you can say yours does too / But I betcha never have to remind anyone to look at it from your point of view” rang out low and clear enough that the audience applauded as if she were singing a catchphrase from “I’ll Take You There.”
But, like another singer who bridged the gospel and civil rights, Sam Cooke, Staples was having a party. Hosting her own very festive 80th birthday party, actually; although he year doesn’t turn over for her until July 10, she’s been celebrating early with a succession of three all-star shows, of which this was the last. She’ll be back on the road later this year with her regular act, without a “Last Waltz’s” worth of guests. But in the meantime there was a show May 9 at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where she was joined by, among others, David Byrne (on her perennial tour version of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People”), Norah Jones, Maggie Rogers and Jason Isbell. At Nashville’s Ryman on May 15, the guest list grew larger, bringing in artists like Margo Price, Sheryl Crow, Nick Lowe, the Milk Carton Kids, Wynonna and Jason Isbell. For this wrapup (which, like the others, was being filmed) L.A. got Ben Harper, members of Dawes, M. Ward, Benjamin Booker, Grace Potter, Joe Henry, Son Little, the War & Treaty, a different slippery T-Head — Jerry Harrison — and… Jason Isbell.
If there is a guy you should be happy has a lot of frequent flyer miles, it’s Isbell. He gave the film crew three different versions of “Change,” from her new album, to choose from between the three cities he tagged along to. But more importantly, he brought some surprisingly solid blues chops. That’s embedded in the material on the Harper-produced and -penned “We Get By” album, which came out this month. And it’s not as if Isbell has ever been regarded as a slouch on the guitar, but he had more Chicago or Austin in him Wednesday than the off-Nashville sound we’ve come to know. He dueted, sort of, with Staples on the song too, but held back more on his delivery than some of the other vocalists, content to let his main contribution be instrumental. Staples rewarded him with the wide grin of a pure fangirl and the first good shoulder pounding of the night.
Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes took much the same approach, seeming a little wary of going head to head with Staples as a vocalist on Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” (which also featured brother Griffin as a second drummer) but happy to succinctly kick out a guitar jam. For the Talking Heads cover, Jerry Harrison cheerfully tapped out that Morse code-like keyboard solo in the rear while the phenomenal women of Lucius provided the soul-revue vocal accompaniment. Staples has been produced in recent years by four high-cred singer/songwriter types, and three of those four were on hand in L.A. for duets: Joe Henry, M. Ward and Harper (with only Jeff Tweedy absent from that mix). Henry’s contribution reprised one of the more boldly poignant numbers she’s done contemporarily, the Tweedy-written “You Are Not Alone,” in which they both take on the role of emergency soul doctors, singing, “Open up, this is a raid.” (It was Harper who had one of the best spoken asides of the night, though, aptly pointing out that the gothic architecture of the Theatre at Ace Hotel looks like it’s out of “Game of Thrones.”)
The guys have it, but the women of the show really roused the ayes, as was appropriate — Stavis is implicitly as a great a feminist icon as she is an African American one. And if her voice is more rugged after close to 70 years of public performance, it’s undiminished in its power to move and motivate… and to harmonize with women whose very different registers mesh with hers in remarkable solidarity. Lucius, Potter, Bridgers and the female half of the War & Treaty all made their queen’s harmonic convergence whole. (Another great woman, not able to join in the singing, was happily in the audience to bear witness, Joni Mitchell.) There is a reason, of course, that Carlile was saved for last among guest singers, and not just because of recent Grammy celebrity. She really took the “when Mavis goes low, we go high” maxim to heart, going into her highest register and still seeming effortlessly in sync with Staples. No wonder that Staples bestowed Carlile Wednesday night with the sobriquet “baby gangster” (according to the latter’s Instagram feed).
After Trombone Shorty, it was up to Staples to finally bear the weight herself at the end of the show… and to bear “The Weight,” too. For an encore of that perennial by the Band, most of the guests came out to sing, but the succession of lead vocals was handled by Staples and members of her regular touring band — a nice nod to the guys who have long been with her and will continue to be with her when she resumes less glittery gigs shortly. Staples has many more elevated spirituals in her and the Staples Singers’ vast repertoire, but as one of the most endearing and uplifting presences in 20th and 21st century culture, she does have the ability to make as simple an offer as “Take a load off” sound like the greatest promise of heavenly hope and glory you’ve ever heard.