You aren’t going to believe me based on this adjective-filled blog, but sometimes I am a little lost for words. Every so often, even though I have the mighty strength and flexibility of our fine English language behind me, it is inadequate to express what is. You and I are going to have to live with that, because after seeing Mavis Staples in concert at Seattle’s Jazz Alley, I know all the descriptive verbosity I could pull out of my creative chapeau wouldn’t really be able to explain what it was like for me and no doubt many of my fellow concert-goers. Maybe the best I can do is say that if you have ever had the feeling that something was so powerful, so real, so right, so genuine, and so joyful that you forget everything else and just FEEL IT right at your core, well, that’s maybe a tiny bit of what I’d like to express. Mavis says to the crowd at the beginning of her shows that she’d like to “leave you with some good feelings…at least for another six months.” Mavis and her band left me with that, but those feelings will last me the rest of my life.

You might not automatically tap me as someone who would be likely to go see Mavis Staples. Look at the concert reviews here and you will see that they are almost all British Invasion/indie-alt/garage rock bands – a bunch of pasty, smart, funny, irreverent white dudes with loud guitars, more or less. But fortunately I had two avenues to make my way to the very best of American blues/soul/gospel music, via the AM pop radio that was never far from my little ears in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and by eventually searching out the original versions of blues songs covered by the Rolling Stones or the Yardbirds or any number of bands I liked. Music was one of the big ways I could reach out of my cheese-and-polka infused Wisconsiness to hear and feel how other people heard and felt. All of the music of my early life sunk in, cell-deep.

Pop music in those days was often an amazing mix of the absolute freshness and fun of bands like the Beatles and the soul-pop grooves coming out of Motown, Stax-Volt, and Atlantic Records, all of them striving to make the perfect under-3-minute song. Two of those perfect songs on my radio – “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” -- were by the Staple Singers. Here’s a 90-second bio, if you are unfamiliar.

If not for the Staples’ association with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement, it’s not very likely I ever would have heard their music. “Pops” Staples and his children -- Cleotha, Pervis, Yvonne and Mavis -- probably would have remained as the premier gospel performers of their time, but their records completely unattainable to me as a tiny white Midwestern atheist girl. The world spotlight on America’s racial struggles brought the Staple Singers blend of down-in-the-dirt-of-the-dirt Delta grit and unique multi-part harmonies to a much bigger audience, and to a career in rock music. The demise of classic pop radio, replaced by FM-AOR stations, talk radio, and further business-fueled music options, led to a downtown in the Staples’ sales popularity, but they never stopped making important, impassioned, and uplifting music. The Staple Singers were inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, and five years after Pops’ death in 2000, received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

So this brings me to last Thursday night at Jazz Alley in downtown Seattle. I had jumped on the chance to get tickets to see Mavis Staples perform, and was rewarded by a table just a few feet away from the low stage. I was really excited and eager for the show, confident that it would be excellent. As a beaming Mavis and her band took the stage, my expectations were more than fulfilled. For one thing, Mavis has working behind her a set of absolutely top-top-top-notch musicians: sister Yvonne Staples (background vocals), Donny Gerrard (background vocals), Eyvonne Williams (background vocals), Stephen Hodges (drums), Rick Holmstrom (guitar), and Jeff Turmes (bass and guitar). Particular stand-outs for me were Gerrard’s vocals (more than deserving of solo acclaim and more than once causing me to just drop my mouth in awe and admiration) and Holmstrom’s fiery Cropper-style guitar work – he’s a GOD, lemme tell ya. This was a ROCKING bunch. I wasn’t expecting quite such a NASTAY dirty get-down sound, but MAN, I loved it. This IS rock n’ roll, and if you don’t know that, you are a big-ass FOOL. Look at me all Mavis-ing here. But that’s how it was – everyone got swept up in the performance, with Mavis’ growly reach-down-deep vocals and happy gospel-style stage banter. She’s this tiny little dynamo of a woman, who sounds like she could kick the Devil’s butt straight to Mars with a single kick of a tiny pointed stiletto.

And then a few songs in, trouble. Yvonne Staples collapsed onstage.

Of course, everyone was shocked. The club was silent as a few medical professionals came up from the audience to help as everyone was trying to figure out what was happening. A man next to me called 911, and the paramedics were there within minutes. It was heartbreaking to hear Mavis call out Yvonne’s name over and over, to see her hold her hand, to not know what we were seeing. You just didn’t know as Mavis left in the ambulance with her sister how it was going to turn out for them.

We sat there at the table for awhile, glum and worried for them all, not sure if we should leave right away. After some time, the club owner appeared, thanked us all for our concern and said that the band wanted to go ahead and play for us, if we wanted to stay. We did, and Holmstrom, Hodges, and Turmes went into an bluesy instrumental tour-de-force that re-energized the appreciative crowd. When Eyvonne Williams and Donny Gerrard came back to sing the spirituals “Amazing Grace” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” I sat there at my table and tears ran down my face – this from the least-godly person I know, me. But when I brushed my face off and looked around a little sheepishly for the unintended emotional display, I saw I wasn’t the only one – there at the table across from me, a very hip-looking older guy was dabbing at his eyes with his bar napkin. A young woman’s tear-streaked cheeks a bit further away were reflecting from the stage lights, and an elderly woman rummaged around in her purse for a tissue for her. All I can say was that there was such a purity in the music, and it was deeply felt.

Two pieces of good news. Yvonne Staples’ was released quickly from the hospital (dehydration and exhaustion treated successfully), and although she was not quite well enough to perform during the rest of the band’s Jazz Alley 4-day run, the band would continue. The club owner very kindly comped a set of tickets to the Saturday 10PM show, so back I went, delighted to be able to see the full show. For YOU, I took this 15 MINUTE LONG video of “Why (Am I Treated So Bad)” which was Martin Luther King, Jr.s’ favorite Staple Singers song. Mavis tells the story of their first meeting with him, at his church. Enjoy.

Pop over to NPR to download a great recording of Mavis’ Newport Folk Festival set from last summer, very similar to the shows I saw. You’ll hear what I mean about that SOUND! I am more than a little stoked to hear that Jeff Tweedy of Wilco (another of my faves, as readers of DI know) is producing Mavis’ next recording, which should be out later in the year.

Well, I ended up as usual coming up with a few words here, but again, I don’t know if I can make you dig just how special Mavis Staples is…you just should try your very best to see her live if you can. She is a pioneer of rock, a soul sister supreme, as sweet as peach pie, and powerful as a volcano. She stayed rock-solid true to her beliefs and ideals, had the tenacity and faith to keep at them despite criticism and difficulties and the fickle nature of fame, and the generosity to keep singing for us, to give us some good feelings. There won’t be another like her.

Thank you, Mavis and friends, from the bottom of my little ol’ heart.