Mavis Staples leads the Hanesbrands Theatre’s first waltz

by Ryan Snyder

If you polled 1,000people on ideal conditionsfor a concert, whatwould the top responsesbe? Seeing a legend, saya Rock and Roll Hall ofFamer-caliber act, wouldsurely be a popular desire.Maybe in a dark, intimatesetting with little to nothingbetween them and theperformer? Seating has toplay in somewhere. Themore accessible and unrestricted, thebetter. Winston-Salem was affordedall of those scenarios and more thispast Saturday night, as the illustriousMavis Staples baptized the sparkling,new Hanesbrands Theatre in a torrentof ragged gospel, vintage soul andunbridled charisma.Unlike other performance spaceson her current tour, the black-boxHanesbrands Theatre isn’t some grandproscenium engineered for impeccableacoustics and doesn’t possess ornatecarvings and trim. It’s a barebonesspace that puts the focus squarely onthe performers and all but dissolves theimaginary wall between them and theaudience. Given the crowds Staples regularlyperforms before, the roughly 400seats (and additional standing room)at the Milton Rhodes Center’s smallerperformance space paled in comparison.At just over half the seated capacity— considerably less than what cameout the night before in Durham — theturnout at Saturday night’s show didn’tappear totally befitting someone of herdistinction. For those that were there, however,it was a completely unforgettable night.As with most firsts, some technical quirkswere to be expected. Opener Jolie Hollanddealt with lopsided sound during her firstsong, an unnamed piece from an as-yet-to-berecordedalbum. Her Gibson Archtop overpoweredher fragile and already challengingbrogue, even resounding over accompanistGrey Gersten’s electric backing. All wasright by the time Holland brought out “LakePonchartrain,” one of the songs she wrotein the early days of the Be Good Tanyas. Inher short set, she managed to pay homageto a couple of the great songwriters who’vemade a clear impression on her work. Shebrought out the twang for a cover of JimmieDale Gilmore’s “Coming Home,” to whichthe exaggerated slur in her voice lent a feelingof desperation. Echoing the subject of herupcoming duo album with Gersten, Hollandturned over the vocal duties to her partner fora rendition of Michael Hurley’s semi-obscure“The Time is Right,” in which she affectedthe songs whistled bridge perfectly.After a brief intermission, Staples and herfive-piece backing band took the floor toas much applause as could be wrung fromthe smallish group on hand. From the secondshe took the mic, she was prepared toremind the room of her devoutly spiritualroots. She opened with the traditional gospeltune “Wonderful Savior” a capella with thehelp of her backup singers Donny Gerardand Chavonne Morris, but it was nearly allmajor-key bliss from there on. The night wasfull of songs culled from her latest album, thebrilliant You Are Not Alone, a deeply upliftingrecord produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.She introduced his penmanship with “Wrote aSong for Everyone,” one of the many clappersshe chose to bring out, followed by her own“Creep Along Moses.”For her live shows, Staples regularlypulls great songs from the canon — BuffaloSpringfield’s “For What It’s Worth” andTalking Heads’ “Slippery People” are some —and completely transform them, though thisnight her set list was a little on the conservativeside. She focused primarily on the newalbum, but there was one chestnut that wasbound to find its way into the set eventually.Mavis’ earth-moving cameo on the Band’sseminal concert film The Last Waltz was thefirst exposure a lot of Gen-Xers had to theStaples Singers, and it’s been a fixture in herperformances since. Staples was irrepressiblein her passion for the piece, but it was Gerardwho was utterly transporting in his reproductionof both Pops Staples’ weary tenor andRick Danko’s tottering cadence. Staples wasn’tthe only Last Waltz alum in the house, however.Former Muddy Waters sideman andGreensboro resident “Steady Rollin’”Bob Margolin didn’t have the sameface time that Staples did alongside theBand, but he was front and center inpaying reverence along with the rest ofthe room.Steady Rollin’ could’ve stepped inon guitar at any moment, but Staples’own sideman Rick Holmstrom wouldhave been tough to unseat. His textbookrock-n’-roller style was a perfectpair to Staples’ deep and resonantvoice, and it was tough at times not tohome in on his masterful playing.Staples, though, was more than incontrol of the spotlight. Whether shewas engaging the audience on herdinner at Sweet Potatoes (“That soulfood lady broke me down, y’all.”) orjostling the theater’s somewhat gauchemoniker (It’s so wonderful to be hereat Hanes Theatre. Hanesbrands?Hanesb-b-brands. I love me someMikey.”), her presence was unassailable.Even when she stepped back tolet Holmstrom and bassist Jeff Turmesflex their instrumental muscle, it was difficultto takes eyes off of her as she shoutedencouragement from the sidelines.She could’ve ended without complainton an a stirring cover of Rev. Gary Davis’“I Belong to the Band Hallelujah.” Even anincredible 10-minute “I’ll Take You There”that saw her go to the audience for vocalsupport — an impractical gesture at nearlyany other theater — felt completely climatic.After 90 minutes of steady spiritual elevation,Staples let the audience down gently with ajoyful finisher from the new album, “We’reGonna Make It.” She left the audience withthe promise that she left a lot of great songsunexplored and that just maybe, she’d be backto do it again. If we’re lucky, maybe it’ll bethe same venue.