WASHINGTON, D.C. – Legendary singer Mavis Staples performed an evening of soul music at The Kennedy Center’s 2018 Spring Gala on May 6 that took the audience down memory lane.
Staples, a 2016 Kennedy Center Award honoree, performed with special guest artists Alison Krauss, Bruce Hornsby and Neko Case. Staples, 78, performed several of the memorable hits that made her Staples Singers family famous. The gala, sponsored by Boeing, raised $1.8 million for the center’s coffers.
Considered as arguably one of the greatest gospel singers of all time, Staples kicked off the evening with the soulful “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) with its powerful lyrics that urge no hatred and peace and love between all races.
Staples proved that, despite her octogenarian years, her smoky, R&B-tinged voice still can move an audience. At times, however, what could have been a seamless performance was thwarted by the singer forgetting when to introduce her guests or even when she should leave the stage and let them have the spotlight. The audience, however, seemed to take it all in stride lovingly.
“If You’re Ready” set the tone for some of the songs that followed; many performed by Staples and her family during the heights of the civil rights movement.
In 1963, the Staples Singers met Dr. Martin Luther, Jr. after performing a concert in Montgomery, AL, and it would greatly influence the direction of the group’s music for years. Staple’s role as a civil rights and black pride activist was invoked in songs such as “Respect Yourself,” and “March Up Freedom’s Highway,” and the Kennedy Center audience responded by heartily singing along.
Staples invited Case, Krauss and Hornsby to join in with her on several numbers, and indie-rocker Case joined Staples on stage for “The Weight.” Case impressively held her own as her siren-like voice belted out the song with its familiar lyrics of “Take a load off, Fanny.” When blue-grass-country singer and musician Krauss performed “It is Well with My Soul,” with Hornsby accompanying on piano, the purity of Krauss’ voice caused the entire Concert Hall to drop to a hush.
Staples was at her peak with “I’ll Take You There” and “Celestial Railroad” before being joined onstage by Krauss, Case, Hornsby and a choir. Their encore of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” had the entire audience on its feet, a fitting testament to Staples’ iconic and influential career.
During the evening, the Kennedy Center presented Awards for the Human Spirit to actor Gary Sinise and to philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad.