It’s no coincidence that on November 4th, the same day voters go to the polls, Mavis Staples will put out her new album, Live: Hope at the Hideout. It’s a final election day stump for her neighbor and former fellow Trinity United Church of Christ congregationalist Barack Obama, who she says embodies the long-unfulfilled promise of the social-justice crusade she has helped lead for 40 years. “We’re still not there,” says the soul diva, who was once the defining voice of Martin Luther King Jr.’s de facto backing band, led by her father, the Mississippi patriarch Roebuck “Pops” Staples. “Dr. King brought us a long way, but we still have injustice, schools are not where they’re supposed to be, and we haven’t passed along our stories to our children. It’s like we’ve forgotten what we fought so hard for. Obama is the closest we’ve come. I really hope this kid can win.”
While she refers to herself as a “golden girl” who needs her rest, at 69, Staples is more restless than ever. She’s touring to support her new album, which was recorded in June during an intimate gig at the alt-folk roadhouse off Elston Avenue. Hope continues the remarkable late-career surge sparked by last year’s We’ll Never Turn Back, the raw, Delta blues–backed, Ry Cooder–produced album from which Staples pulled much of the material for her first-ever live recording. The diverse crowd lucky enough to see the Hideout show was partly spurred by Staples’s signing to the hipster-hybrid label ANTI-, which bridges genres and generations with its motley roster of iconoclastic rockers (Nick Cave, Tom Waits), rappers (Cadence Weapon), and country artists (Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Neko Case). The howling, sweat-soaked, close-quarters performance they witnessed—backed only by a swampy three-piece band and singing trio that included her sister Yvonne—was no repackaged reissue. “It is raw and demanding, and sometimes it’s like I’m angry,” says Staples. “It’s just the voice God has given me in the second half of my career. He’s saying, ‘Show yourself in a different way.’”
On November 1st, Staples will reprise freedom songs both sacred and secular at a Harris Theater concert (proceeds will go to the Old Town School of Folk Music). Her stagemates will be none other than Booker T. and the M.G.’s, the band that fueled the Staples Singers’ early seventies hits “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” As one of the South’s first integrated R & B/soul groups, they’ll help ensure that the circle, indeed, remains unbroken. On November 1st, Mavis Staples plays the Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph St.
Photoillustration: Sean McCabe