Keith again: our second show of the weekend was Mavis Staples at Massey Hall, with James Hunter and his band as the opening act.
James Hunter has been performing a series of gigs around the periphery of the city in smaller venues and, based on this set I think he would play better in this setting. He has an engaging personality and a tight group, with his saxophonists as the stand-outs. Everybody looked like they might play for pints in an east-end London pub, but were clearly very professional musicians. Imagine what the Commitments would have looked and sounded like if they stayed together for another ten years. Actually, Hunter could have used the girl singers from the Commitments to add a little edge to the vocals. His singing is not that strong and, with one exception, the tunes had a sameness to them that made the set seem longer than its 45 minute runtime. The exception was Don’t Do It, apparently a hit by a group called the Five Royals in the middle of the last century. It had more bite and was the standout.
After a long intermission to rest the stage, Mavis Staples came on with three back-up singers, including one of her sisters, and a two guitar and drums group. Mavis’ voice ain’t what it used to be, but she can still really put over a song and knows how to work both it and the audience. She seemed tired, and perhaps not well (although better than her sister who looked drugged or really sick) and took a long time-out while the guitarists took over. Wow, let’s talk about the guitarists! But first – the sound was great. James Hunter and his group had had a rather flat sound but the set up for Mavis Staples was superb. Mind you, the hall didn’t hurt. Mavis didn’t bother with the microphone from time to time and, although her voice has lost some power, she was still clearly audible. Now, back tot he instrumentalist. All three were excellent but the stand-out was the leader, Rick Holstrom. Now, for the three of you who bought any of his albums before they became unavailable, he, or at least his sound, is much better live. The sound from his guitar was astounding whether he was trading phrases with Mavis or on his extended solos. Wow! (I bought he one album of his still available and it is quite pleasant, but nothing to lead you to expect how good he was at Massey.)
Another great show – makes you realize why live music is worthwhile.
PS: The show we missed was Quartetto Gelato – another group who have a whole other dimension when performing live versus their (still excellent) CDs.