Playing to a packed crowd at Brooklyn's Bell House on Tuesday night, the legendary soul singer Mavis Staples took the stage-- one that's more typically a platform for laconic indie-rocker types--and showed the mostly under-50 audience what it meant to really work--physically, not just spiritually--in service of a song. Visibly winded between numbers, her lower lip occasionally trembling with emotion, the 71-year-old Staples performed an extended version of "Freedom Highway" ("I won't turn around, no I won't, no I won't, I won't turn around..."), and told the crowd afterward: "I'm still on that highway...I'm still on it. A lot of you probably weren't around then. So for you, this is gonna be a history lesson." Certainly the show itself felt historic, even for those who didn't need any schooling. (Sample blips from Twitter: @noelnocciolo writes: Mavis Staples @ the bell house. & she covered "the weight." I die. Major life moment, thanks / @kevinrfree: I'm watching Mavis Staples live at the Bell House in Brooklyn. Um, she's FIERCE /@bzurer: Just home from one of the best concerts I have ever experienced in my life. Mavis Staples @ The Bell House. And my favorite, from @CelebStoner: @ Mavis Staples show, Bell House, Bklyn - Mavis pedicts Jet-Bears Super Bowl...)
Those words echoed what she told Brian Williams in an interview at the Apollo Theatre, shortly after the release of her 2007 collection of Civil Rights-era songs, "We'll Never Turn Back": "We dont want to forget Dr. King -- a lot of these young people weren't there, and we want them to know, and to try and finish what Dr. King started." You can watch the full interview above.
There's not tons of great archival material of the Staples Singers freely available online, but here's a pretty captivating clip of "When Will be Paid," from 1971. And you can watch more recent unplugged versions of songs from her new album, "You Are Not Alone," produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy. (As Staples exclaimed after performing the title song on Tuesday night, "that kid Tweedy can WRITE").