- 24 Jun 19
Soul Royalty, Passing Through. Report: Pat Carty. Picture: Mr White.
Ultan Conlon seems like a perfectly nice fellow. He’s got a sweet and gentle way with a story as well, whether it be about Galway, his cat, not messing with Mary Coughlan, or teaching lyrics to the late John Martyn. He’s making in-roads into day-time radio with songs like ‘The Measure’ so fair play and good luck to him, but his music isn’t for me. Gentle – a bit too gentle – by-the-numbers love songs in the Christie Hennessy tradition that go on a bit. You know when a house party is winding down but there’s always someone who manages to produce an acoustic guitar from somewhere? That kind of thing. The bass player and second guitarist don’t add much colour or variety either. That being said, he wins people over and earns a good reception, though Mr White started reading the paper beside me about halfway through the set, but let’s ignore him. Other people were swaying along to Conlon’s easy fare, their interest piqued, and that’s the point of a support slot.
The bass intro to ‘If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)’ plays as Mavis Staples is walked out from the wings, a perfect persuader to get everyone smiling and nodding. Mavis does her first soul growl of the evening and sings along with the solo from her guitar player Rick Holmstrom, before they slip into ‘Take Us Back’ from 2016’s Livin’ On A High Note, with its message of friends and family making life easier. Ms Staples may be only a matter of weeks away from her eightieth birthday but that voice hasn’t aged at all. It still carries about seventy-odd years of American social history in its timbre.
Talking Heads’ ‘Slippery People’ is seriously funky and we’d all be dancing if we weren’t all sitting down, but we’re tapping toes and wiggling arses. Accordingly, let us now praise famous men. Stephen Hodges on drums might look like the substitute teacher who’s more disappointed with you than angry, and bass player Jeff Turmes may resemble Clark Kent’s crumpled uncle who’s had a bad run of luck with the horses, but they can play. Nothing showy, nothing unnecessary, nothing out of place: We are the rhythm section and we’ll be over here in the pocket should anyone need us. Holmstrom’s guitar screams the song to an end but his playing is always tasteful. Isn’t it funny how the best guitar players don’t feel the need to change instruments after every song? You don’t see Richard Thompson at that kind of messing either. One must presume that Holmstrom and that Telecaster have been together for a long time, he certainly knows his way around it.
Staples bids us good evening, makes her first – but not last - joke about pronouncing the phrase “Durlin, Erland’, and mentions last year’s Electric Picnic appearance, Hozier (who doesn’t appear despite whispers that he might in the bar beforehand), and what a beautiful doll house of a venue The Olympia is. “Best venue in town,” says Mr White from behind a pint. “She’s got my vote.” They’re probably well worn lines, but when she says they’ve come from Chicago to bring “joy, happiness, inspiration, and positive vibration” you can’t help buying into it. Holmstrom sings the falsetto into to ‘Build A Bridge’ – there were unconfirmed reports that he was seen driving the van later – and then provides the nearly dirty blues riff that holds up ‘Change’, the opening track from this year’s rousing We Get By. When he takes a solo mid-song, it’s in Marc Ribot behind Tom Waits territory. High praise indeed.
Staples moves out near the lip of the stage for ‘Who Told You That’, and has the crowd in her pocket during a sing along to the Buffalo Springfield chestnut ‘For What It’s Worth’. She obviously thinks we’re good too, offering to take the crowd out on tour with her. Thing step up a gear for ‘Respect Yourself’, with vocalist Donny Gerrard perfectly covering Pop Staples soul whisper and Mavis herself yeah-ing him on off mic. She even throws up a black power salute, for the times we’re living in, sadly as relevant now as it was back at the Mexico Olympics just over fifty years ago.
‘Anytime’ – again from the new album – allows Holmstrom to go full Steve Cropper and you marvel, and not for the first time either, at the fact that this is ‘just’ a three-piece band. The Staples’ ‘Freedom Highway’ and ‘Touch A Hand, Make A Friend’ – “Can’t you FEEL IT in your bones?!?” are interspersed with ‘Stronger’, ‘We Get By’ and the set finishes with ‘No Time For Crying’. At this point, the crowd are hollering their approval, up on their feet, and they keep this going for several minutes as they wait for Mavis to retake the stage. The problem is she’s already Chuck Berried her way back to the hotel. It finally dawns on us when the crew start taking the gear down and the lights come back up. It’s a shame. I, for one, was looking forward to hearing ‘The Weight’ if nothing else but it wasn’t to be. We got our hour and change and that’ll have to do us.
All that being said - and there was a few moments during the performance as Staples talked about the merchandise on sale or her favourite flowers where, had this been a sporting event, she might have got a yellow card for time wasting – it was a good show, for how could it not be with a band like that, and a voice like hers. From the early days singing in church, through the civil rights movement where she stood beside Dr King, through the Stax hits, through work with people like Dylan and Prince, and up to her recent welcome revival, it is all there in that voice, and to spend even an hour with it is a joy indeed.