GREGORY PORTER AND MAVIS STAPLES RECEIVE STANDING OVATIONS
Concert Review by Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
January 20, 2017
It rained in sheets, reminding me of Thailand’s monsoon rain storms. The Inland Empire, (often referred to as the I.E.) was wet with water and blown by wild winds that gusted up to fifty-miles-per-hour. Ms. Ruby Kia, my ten-year-old, red SUV that still looks young and vibrant, crept down the Cajon pass from 4300 feet above sea level to Orange County. For those of you who don’t reside in California, that’s about a 100- mile trek down the I-15 freeway; a well-traveled passageway that winds from San Diego, California to Las Vegas, Nevada. As Nick & Valorie Simpson sang, “No wind – no rain – will keep me from you baby.” No way was I going to miss this Gregory Porter and Mavis Staples concert at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California. My long-time, Detroit friend, (Ricky) had bought these tickets way in advance. Even though I have seen both iconic vocalists before, I was still excited. To my sweet surprise, we were seated in the front row. Sitting before us was a cow-bell, a tambourine, a vocal microphone stand and another stand that would soon support an electronic tablet of music. No more paper music scores. Technology has come a long way in the last 20 years.
Enter Mavis Staples, dressed in black pants, a floaty black chiffon like blouse decorated with a long, gold chain. Her band took to the stage a few minutes before her appearance. Vicki Randle stood in position before the percussion set-up and locked her tablet into place. You may have seen Ms. Randle before as part of Kevin Eubanks’ Primetime Band on the former Late Show hosted by Jay Leno. Jeff Turmes on electric bass walked across the large wooden stage. Rick Holmstrom cradled his guitar and plugged-in, while Stephen Hodges settled behind the trap drums. Deacon Donny Gerrard stood next to Vicki, an amazing background vocalist who would shine during this performance, harmonizing with Vicki and sometimes letting his amazing range show-off using a killer tenor vocal. Right from the first stoke of Jeff Turmes’ fingers on the bass guitar, he set the groove and commanded the stage for the petite and iconic gospel star with the big voice. Mavis joined them with dimples flashing.
They opened with “Come Go With Me,” a song that sounds very similar to her big hit, “I’ll Take You There.” Then, from her album, “Livin’ On A High Note“ she sang “Take Us Back”, a song about family and people sticking together in support of each other. Vicki Randle was outstanding on vocals and percussion, blending smoothly with Deacon Donny’s voice to support the always energetic and spirited Ms. Staples. Ms. Randle commanded the cow bell and tambourine with a deft hand. The David Burke composition that The Staple Singers recorded back in 1982, “He’s Alright,” was rich with gospel musicality. Their hit record, “Respect Yourself” brought back warm memories. When she sang “What you gonna do when death comes creepin’ in your room,” the low down blues guitar had the concert audience captivated. Mavis Staples was animated on the song her talented father, “Pop Staples,” wrote for the MLK Selma march to Montgomery. She sang, “March Up Freedom’s Highway” with gusto. Her hour plus opening concert for Gregory Porter resulted in a standing ovation by the sold-out crowd. As an encore, she took us back down memory lane, turning the clock hands back to her 1971 hit, “I’ll Take you There.” The audience was again on their feet and demonstratively joyful. She received a second standing ovation.
After a short break, Gregory Porter and his high-energy band arrived, cool as a rainy California night. One of the most captivating things about this jazz vocalist is Porter’s ability to fly freely over his multi-talented rhythm section and make every familiar, original composition brand new. These are songs we love and play over and over from his hit albums. Yet, believe it or not, he makes each one fresh and more beautiful and exciting than the recordings we hold so dear. Porter opened with “Holding on,” encouraging Emanuel Harrold to fire the band up with his drum skills. Mr. Porter held the crowd in the palm of his huge hands as he sang, “On My Way to Harlem,” a song from his “Water” CD. He serenaded us with the title tune from his recent CD release, “Take Me To The Alley” and told us that his mother taught him about having an open heart and inspired the writing of this very spiritual song. He also thanked a young woman on FaceBook that he had viewed singing his song with conviction and talent. He said she reminded him of his mother and her spiritual passion.
Porter delivers a song like a prayer. He inspired the audience to shout and emote and say “Hallelujah,” as though we were in some Baptist church instead of a concert hall. Yes – We were all fired up by the ensemble’s offering of “Liquid Spirit” that had the entire concert hall flush with hand-clapping and featured young, Marietta, Georgia saxophonist, Tivon Pennicott. Porter is friendly with his audiences and honest, like a best friend. He tells us that there is a young man,(Pointing to the theater balcony) the son of a college mate from his time at San Diego State University, to whom he dedicates his next song. With gusto and power he sings, “Young Man, I’m Counting On You.” You can’t help but feel this artist is sincere and genuinely cares about people and his community. “The Consequence of Love” is so beautiful that it bullies my emotions and tears well up in my eyes. Behind him, his super talented bass player, Jahmal Nichols, plays with a smile as wide and colorful as a rainbow. He offered up an amazing bass solo that set the stage for Porter to surprise us with a Motown Standard song, originally sung by The Temptations. “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” never sounded so good. After one verse and a chorus, the bass player took over once again and Nichols led the ensemble into “I Do Not Agree … Musical Genocide.” Chip Crawford, the pianist who has been with Porter since his first recording, played an inspired piano solo, incorporating several songs into the chord changes from Reggae to “America the Beautiful”. Gregory entered with his rich baritone voice resting against our ears like a plush, cashmere blanket. He wrapped the attentive audience in a magical cocoon when he sang, “Leave your innocents and vulnerability with me.” When I left that concert hall, I felt I had done just that. All my emotions were scattered like puzzle pieces on the floor beneath my seat, spent in hand-clapping, tears and shouts of praise. These things could not begin to express the healing I received from Gregory Porter’s songs. The oneness of an enthusiastic audience, coming together to enjoy this master musician’s vocals and songwriting skills, was amazing. We found incomparable love and compassion in his presentation. We fed him bits and pieces of praise with two standing ovations. His encore, dedicated to our outgoing United States President and our incoming President, was carefully chosen. He sang us his message (as only he can) and filled our minds with love, hope and prayer; “When Love Was King.”
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