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REVIEW: Buddy Guy & Mavis Staples: Two Icons, Still Going Strong (Mystic Lake)

Songstress legend Mavis Staples in concert.

Last night at Mystic Lake, the audience was privileged to see two icons of American popular music, Mavis Staples and Buddy Guy. Staples may be best known as the lead singer for the family group the Staples Singers, whom she started singing with them at the age of 10. Guy’s storied career includes playing session guitar for Muddy Waters and a career second wind during the 80s/90s Blues Revival.

Many know Staples’ voice from arts activism. After the Staples Singers met with Martin Luther King, they sang primarily in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Mavis Staples’ moving versions of “Eyes on the Prize” and “Turn Me Around” from this period have stood the test of time well. Eventually, though, the group returned to singing a broader range of songs. (Although even their biggest hit, “Respect Yourself“, carries tones of individual and group self-empowerment.) While Mavis Staples has never stopped touring, the passing away of family members has left her as a solo act. She does, however, still continue to sing many songs from her Staples Singers days. (If you could not make it to Mystic Lake, this recent performance provides a sampling.)

A promotional photo of Buddy Guy. Photo courtesy of Paradigm Talent Agency.

Neither musician has been idle in recent years: both Staples and Guy have had recent album releases. Staples’ Live in London dropped earlier this month; Guy’s The Blues is Alive and Well came out last year, earning him a Grammy Award – one of his 8 Grammy wins, with 14 more nominations. (Staples has also been impressive at the Grammies: she has 2 awards and 8 Grammy nominations, plus 5 more nominations as part of the Staples Singers).

Staples took the first turn on the stage. She sang many of the songs featured on “Live in London”, including “Who Told You That”, “Slippery People” (first performed by the group Talking Heads), “No Time for Cryin’”, and “Can You Get to That”, and added well-known entries from the Staples Singers catalogue, “I’ll Take You There” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me)”. Staples still has the same powerful deep voice she displayed decades ago. There may just be a bit more growl to the voice now, but it remains impressive, especially for a performer just a few months short of her 80th birthday.

Guy passed that landmark two years back. However, as he sings in the “End of the Line”, from the new album:

I’m young as an old man can be…
Even though I’ve got one foot in the grave,
I won’t be quiet
And I won’t behave.

Both performers smiled and laughed throughout the evening, and both emphasized how their primary objective was to bring the audience joy, to make them happy, at least for a few hours. But Guy adds some mischievousness. Over the course of the evening, this guitar virtuoso – Eric Clapton called him “by far without a doubt the best guitar player alive” – played his instrument with a drum stick, his elbow, his teeth, and the front of his overalls.

As Guy sings (again from “End of the Line”):

So many of my friends have gone,
Maybe my time ain’t long,
I promise ’til the day I die,
I’m gonna keep these blues alive,
But I feel sometime like I’m the end of the line.

Buddy Guy breaks out a drumstick on the jumbotron. Photo by Brian Bix.

And Guy does do what he can to keep the blues alive. During the concert, he played homage to B.B. King, Junior Wells, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Clapton/Cream, doing little bits of “Purple Haze”, “Mannish Boy”, and “Strange Brew”, among others from the genre, and offering longer versions of other blues classics like “Every Day (I Have the Blues)” and “Hoochie Coochie Man”. He also played many of his own better known songs, like “Someone Else Steppin’ In”, “She’s Nineteen Years Old”, and “Feels Like Rain”. He also offered “Cognac” from his new album (on the studio record, he’s accompanied by Keith Richards and Jeff Beck). As has become traditional in his concerts, Guy played one of his songs while walking into the audience –to the thrill of those present, unaccustomed to icons walking among them.

To honor the local weather, Guy at one point changed the lyrics of “It Feels Like Rain” to “it feels like snow”. I am not sure how he resisted the temptation to sing a different song from his new album, the blues classic “Nine Below Zero”.

Brian Bix