The Grade 1-listed Union Chapel in Islington/Highbury, built in the late 19th Century in Gothic-revival style, is both a working Congregationalist church and a charity drop-in centre but perhaps best well-known to irreligious bums like me as a corking-good live music venue.
Somehow its combination of imposing architecture and wonderful acoustics instinctively multiplies every concert-goer’s anticipatory sense of occasion.
Last Monday night – as I can testify from within my own party of four attending a gig there by soul/gospel/R & B great Mavis Staples, three of whom were in this category – even first-time visitors feel they’re going to have a great night as they walk towards it.
I’d be very surprised if similar didn’t apply to every musician who plays there.
So much of a great gig depends upon the ‘craic’ of the evening – I happened to be in the company of a family group including a twenty-something nephew who knew little of ‘old time’ (pre-1990) music but was along for the ride.
We piled into a small, unprepossessing pub opposite the Chapel called The Library and began talking great music from the past aided by smartphone on which we cranked out music from the Sixties and Seventies for his benefit – e.g. the Spencer David Group featuring Stevie Winwood, who joined them at the tender age of fourteen, sounding more like Ray Charles than Ray Charles did – see here for a early snatch of him at the age of fifteen, courtesy of YouTube – SPENCER DAVIS GROUP
Two or three pints later a chap of about my age on an adjoining table joined our conversation. He still attends about fifty gigs a year of the likes of The Groundhogs, Yes, Hawkwind, Man and tens of others from my youthful era who are still stepping out, zimmer frames and oxygen masks to the ready, to ‘keep the flame alive’.
By the time we entered the venue we were buzzing and ready to be wowed.
Mavis, who had celebrated her 79th birthday at the weekend and is the last surviving member of the legendary combo the Staples Singers, did not disappoint. When a onetime great is at the veteran stage there’s an attendant danger (not least in the minds those of us wanting a younger relative to be impressed) that the vocal pipes are not what quite they were. Happily, there was scant evidence of it on Monday because Mavis’s star quality and ‘presence’ was undaunted and undimmed.
After the briefest of ‘funk’ workouts from her band and an understated introduction the lady strolled out on stage to a spontaneous eruption of enthusiasm and a standing ovation that echoed to the rafters. There was an immediate empathy between audience and performers and we were immediately away upon a voyage of joyous celebration and wonder.
I’m not going to attempt a blow-by-blow account of the Staples Singers’, or indeed Mavis’s, back catalogue but it was a cracking evening from start to finish. At one point, with the acclaim of the previous ditty gradually dying away, a female member of our little group was moved to stand up and bellow “We love you Mavis – London!” at the top of her voice.
The great lady laughed, looked up to where we were sitting and replied “I know you do!” and then – to the audience in general, nodding in our direction – “I have a cousin in here tonight” [laughter] … in fact I have lots of cousins in here tonight!” to an immediate responding roar of collective affirmation and togetherness.
You could tell that the performers on stage were having a ball, bathing in the audience’s fervent participation, because towards the end Rick Holstrum – the pork-pied hatted guitarist and band leader – came to his microphone and, after nodding to Mavis, told the audience “That was going to be our last song, but we’re going to see if we cannot manage a couple more …”.
And so they did.
My assertion was that, when she was 27, Mavis Staples would have been at least as good a singer as Winehouse. What he had witnessed that night just went to reinforce just how big a tragedy Winehouse’s early death had been.
Just think how good a singer might Winehouse have become if, like Mavis, she’d had another fifty years’ worth (and counting) of experience in front of her?
I’d love to have shared with Rust readers a snippet from last Monday’s concert, but none is available.
Instead, as a second-best, here’s a representative clip of Mavis in action – performing at the White House in 2017, again courtesy of YouTube, singing the classic – I’LL TAKE YOU THERE