The five-piece band vamping behind her on the Kessler Theater’s intimate stage, Mavis Staples began to testify.
“My father wrote that song back in 1962,” she began, the faint echo of Freedom Highway still lingering. “He wrote it for the big march, the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. I was there, and I’m still here.
“I’m a witness! I’m a witness! I’m a witness! I’m a living witness!”
The shock of the sentiment rippled through the standing room only crowd, on the first of the two nights Staples will headline the Oak Cliff listening room, in support of her just-released album, Living on a High Note.
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The agony and the ecstasy, the pain and the joy — each resides in close proximity in Staples’ music, giving it lift and heft simultaneously.
The 76-year-old R&B legend spent roughly an hour Friday working through songs beloved by many and songs relatively unknown to most.
She toggled between more recent material — the title track to Note, Love and Trust, the set-opening Take Us Back — and classics like Respect Yourself and, of course, I’ll Take You There.
As Staples tore into I’ll Take You There — “The Staples Singers, we’ve been taking y’all there for 66 years, and I’m not tired yet!” Staples declaimed as the groove unfurled around her. “Y’all ain’t seen the last of me!” — the room took on the dimensions of a Sunday service.
A call and response blossomed between Staples, eagerly shaking hands with those at the foot of the stage, and the audience, balancing on the knife’s edge between reverent and rowdy.
It was, in the moment, as pure a distillation of Staples and her enduring sound as could possibly be conjured.
She can still take us there, elevating everyone with her indomitable spirit and timeless soul.
Had the evening been merely a showcase for Mavis Staples, the Kessler Theater crowd would have doubtless strolled sated into the mild night air.
But this night was an embarrassment of riches, with acclaimed troubadour Nick Lowe serving as the opening act.
“I’ve written many songs in my time,” the 66-year-old Lowe explained, in a typical bit of droll commentary, “and some of them have been successful. Most of them have not. Tonight, I’ll be presenting both kinds to you.”
He stuffed 16 songs into the course of an hour-long set, performing by himself with an acoustic guitar.
It was a wonderful union of artist and venue — one patron bellowed “Forever!” when Lowe wondered aloud how long he should play — and Lowe reeled off a dizzying succession of urbane folk-pop gems: House for Sale; The Beast in Me; Cruel to Be Kind; I Trained Her to Love Me and, in the audience-demanded encore, (What’s So Funny) ‘bout Peace, Love and Understanding?
Staples and Lowe perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Kessler Theater.