Review: Mavis Staples and Tami Neilson, Civic Theatre, April 23, Auckland

I’ve realised in recent years that if you have a chance to see a legend, you see the legend. I saw Prince perform just two months before he died, but I’ll always regret not seeing Leonard Cohen giving his last concert ever in Auckland or missing out on what turned out to be David Bowie’s final tour in 2004. 

mavis-tami-auckland-live-v21133x628So when soul legend Mavis Staples came to town, I made sure to be there because I didn’t want to miss what might be my only chance to see her way down here in NZ.  That may sound a bit morbid, but honestly, Mavis and outstanding opening act Tami Neilson were actually one of the most life-affirming, optimistic shows I’ve been to in ages. In a time when the news seems to bring us down almost every day, you need a little Mavis Staples singing that “love is the only transportation.”

It’s hard to sum up just how awesome Mavis Staples’ career has been. She’s been singing since 1950, when she was just 11 years old, with the family Staple Singers. She marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Bob Dylan wanted to marry her. She’s worked with everyone from Prince to Jeff Tweedy to Curtis Mayfield. Songs like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself” are part of American history.

IMG_5784Today, Mavis Staples is a few months away from 80 years old, she’s barely five feet tall, and she was obviously nursing a sore throat, but she still tore the roof off the Civic Theatre in Auckland with her soaring voice and inspirational message. 

Backed up by a crack back-up band, for an hour or so she took us through soul and gospel history, covering Funkadelic and the Talking Heads, and hammering home her message of positivity against the odds – “Build a Bridge,” “We Get By,” “No Time For Cryin’” – it’s all about rising up and carrying on. Mavis even joked that she might run for President. I’d vote for her in a second over the current occupant. 

1528670891846Opening for Mavis was the wonderful Tami Neilson, a Canadian/New Zealander country singer I’ve been wanting to see for ages. She didn’t disappoint, nearly managing to actually upstage Mavis Staples with a rip-roaring fierce set of her rockabilly/country anthems. She’s got a stunning stage presence, all retro charm and easygoing charisma. Neilson’s got a voice like Patsy Cline and Dolly Parton had a super-charged baby and she let it tear through the Civic. Stragglers who wandered in late because they’re too cool to see an opening act were missing one of the best performances I’ve seen in ages, proud and strong and every way a match for Mavis Staples. If you don’t know Tami Neilson, check her out. I’d say she’s on her way to being a legend, too. 

Review: Billy Bragg, Hollywood Cinema, November 21, Auckland

IMG_4220These days, it feels like there’s nothing more revolutionary than being sincere, than just being a man, alone, on stage with a guitar and a message. 

Folk singer from Essex Billy Bragg is back in New Zealand for a three-night run of shows at the grand old Hollywood Cinema in Avondale, and his first gig in the series was like a tonic in troubled times.

Being a protesting folk singer in 2018 may seem like a throwback. The old names like Pete Seeger or Phil Ochs are all gone and those that are left are getting up there in years. And it’s so, so hard for a protest singer to find that thin line between hectoring and speechifying, to not get stuck in rant mode eternally. But Bragg has ample humour and an immensely quick wit to carry him through the night. We need more voices like his.

His rallying cry at each show is a rejection of cynicism and a call for activism. Bragg is one thing a lot of musicians aren’t – utterly sincere on stage, clear-eyed without being naive. It’s inspiring and more than a little comforting to see someone unafraid to take a stand and who can sing a song like Woody Guthrie’s “All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose” and make you believe every word of it. 

This first night of his run at the Hollywood, Bragg was in fine, upbeat form, playing for over two hours and loosely changing his set on a whim, at one point playing an amazing Leadbelly cover to demonstrate the skiffle sound (which, of course, he’s written a book about). He spoke nearly as much as he sang, on everything from Brexit to Stan Lee, but always engagingly.

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With immense control, he spun from a grim recounting and song about America’s history of lynchings to breezily playing a cover of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There” from his busking days. What I’ve always liked about Bragg is his ability to switch gears between the hard-edged protest songs and open-hearted songs about love, or as he called it, “songs about rain and wanking.” Songs like “The Milkman of Human Kindness” or “Greetings to the New Brunette” are little gems of lyrical power and longing. 

And when several hundred people are lustily singing along and stamping their feet to “There Is Power In A Union,” for a moment, the world feels like it isn’t completely screwed in the long run. 

He capped things off with a biting and clever rewrite of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’ Changin’” for the Trump era, blasting at the grim tide with lyrics like “The land of the free and the home of the brave / Martin Luther King is spinning in his grave”. 

I don’t know about you, but these days I can get behind a protest song or three. 

Long live the revolution.