“Lemonade! Good evening y’all,” the legendary Mavis Staples greets the crowd. “So happy to be back with you, I tell you we’ve missed you,” she says, and you know she means it when she even has an accidental pet name for the city.
She brings tidings, she tells us, from Chicago, the windy city, the “home of the down home blues”. She’s also brought its music, as she launches into a set that initially leans on her recent albums. There’s Build A Bridge, written by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, and the Ben Harper-penned Brothers and Sisters from the new album he produced for her. She also briefly recalls last year’s Talking Heads tribute set from Angelique Kidjo with a cover of 1983’s Slippery People.
At 80, Staples’ voice has a well-earned grit that brings decades of feeling and attitude to every syllable. Hers is a voice that, with all due respect, has seen some shit, and has sung about it every step of the way. “I marched down the southern highways with Martin Luther King,” she reflects in the middle of Freedom Highway. It’s a song by Staples’ father Pops Staples and first performed with the Staples Singers in 1965, and its presence at the centre of her set drives home just how much can change in one person’s lifetime – provided they’re willing to hit the streets.
“Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi,” she continues, “We’d march and we’d sing. After a while the police came up to us, wanted to know if we had papers, papers to march and sing. They took us to jail…. we’d sit around, and then we got back out of jail, and started all over again!
“I was there, and I’m still here. I’m a witness,” she hollers, “and my work is not done yet.”
It’s a fitting note to round out a weekend marked by difficult conversations about the climate crisis, inequality and social progress happening around the park, and a salient reminder that we can always do better – and that it often helps to have the right soundtrack.
Sunday, Foundation Stage