You can’t help it. You sit in the front row of a Mavis Staples concert and you are conscious every now and then of the grin you can’t wipe from your face. You wipe the tears as well but in the end you give up and let them run. It is a strange mix of elation, satisfaction, and toe tapping blues which puts the smile there. Its the incredibly talented team she has backing her and working with her, ripping Ry Cooder riffs and plenty of stuff you have never heard before! Its that husky, smoky, warm voice of hers. Its the passion born of Martin Luther King era injustice and misery that she flings across the auditorium that stirs your heart. Her gritty “Down in Mississippi”, when she sings about the rabbit which has a season ban on being shot (you could go to jail for that) but where open season is perpetually open on her sets the tone. As does her personal conviction that “We’ll Never Turn Back”. But it would be a mistake to think that this is some sort of vengeance mission she is on. That is not the case. She wraps up a stirring “Eyes on the Prize” and when she calls to the crowd to never take their eyes off the prize it is a victory cry and everyone responds as you would expect. This girl is a girl of God and the power of that shows through in the remarkable compassion and forgiveness that flows out of her. She is singing about fixing the anger and the hurt. You can’t not respond to that.
Mavis has her roots in the Civil Rights Movement and tonight I, along with everyone else, was privileged to have a connection to that period in our history. It is a bleak and appalling period but here she is singing personal compassion, flying the flag of a merciful God, yet presenting her resolve to keeping seeking human rights and dignity for all people. Her father mixed it with Dr King and there was something tangible in her presence tonight that linked us all back to that time and that man. Not just me but Bruce and Marg (new friends met beside me just this night) who sat on one side of me and the woman on the other side who, through all their smiles and tears, recognised too the amazing connection we were privileged to have some insight into and share in tonight. It was an experience that was nothing short of something wonderfully spiritual.
There is power in forgiveness, of compassion, and walking past old injustices and leaving them behind, no matter how grievous. Mavis made it clear in her singing tonight that she would not allow any person, regardless of race, to be pushed around (“ain’t going to let injustice turn me around”). But the real potency of her presence and singing witness is the forgiveness and love that shines through, so when she extends her hand from the stage you accept it and shake it and mouth thankyou, for it’s a message that can’t come from our vengeful hearts, but one that can only come from the Master she owned in front of us all tonight, and in that touch you know you are touching something of God himself.
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