“Secret Weapon” for Mavis revealed…

Greg Kot in the Chicago Tribune September 20, 2010

Secret weapon behind Mavis Staples’ new Jeff Tweedy-produced album

Greg Kot

The story that most fans know about Mavis Staples’ rousing new album, “You Are Not Alone” (Anti), is that the singer recorded it with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who produced it and also wrote two songs.

But the most underappreciated aspect of it is that Tweedy didn’t leave his thumbprints all over the session. On the contrary, he not only let Mavis be Mavis, he ensured that she would record the album with her touring band: guitarist Rick Holmstrom, bassist Jeff Turmes and drummer Stephen Hodges.

“All the interviewers want to talk about Tweedy, and I can understand that, but the band is really an important part of this and most write-ups aren’t including that,” Staples says while sitting at a South Loop hotel lounge, with her sister Yvonne at her side. “The first thing Jeff said to me after he saw us play together was, ‘That band is good for you. They leave you space to be yourself.’”

The relationship with Holmstrom began around the time she was recording her 2007 masterpiece, “We’ll Never Turn Back,” with producer-guitarist Ry Cooder in California.

“Ry was playing some dangerous guitar; it reminded me of the way Pops (her father, the late Roebuck ‘Pops’ Staples) used to sound,” Staples said. “It made me change my band. I had a great band for 20 years, but they couldn’t play like that. In order to play those songs on tour, I had to find someone who did. I finally had to tell them I had to use another band, Rick’s band.”

Like Cooder, Holmstrom was well-versed in Pops Staples’ guitar vocabulary. Holmstrom had played a couple of intimate, duet shows with Mavis Staples and his trio backed the singer at a festival in California while she was recording “We’ll Never Turn Back.” The singer’s band got hung up at an airport, and Holmstrom’s trio – the opening act – stepped in. The Holmstrom group made a huge impression on Cooder, who was standing in the wings cheering them on, and Staples herself.

“Sometimes I have to look around because I think Pops is up there with Rick,” she says. “I say to Rick, ‘Pops is in your fingers.’ ”

Pops Staples’ sparse, tremolo-inflected sound was the backbone of numerous hits for the Staple Singers in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when the Chicago-based family band was crafting a legacy built on topical, socially-conscious gospel-soul songs such as “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.”

“I’ve been playing in a blues band since the late ‘80s, and a friend turned me on to Pops Staples in the mid-‘90s,” Holmstrom says in an interview from his home in California. “I used to listen to a tape of his songs while I was driving and coming down after a gig. It was quiet, airy, perfect stuff, and Pops’ style just started seeping into my own songs. When I started playing with Mavis, I wanted to use some of that.”

The empathy and sense of space with which the trio plays while backing Staples is documented on “Live Hope at the Hideout,” a 2008 recording at the Chicago club. The members of Wilco attended the show and Tweedy came away impressed. He had initially thought of using Wilco to back Mavis on the “You Are Not Alone” sessions but ended up insisting that Holmstrom, Turmes and Hodges do the job when the album was recorded last December and January in Chicago.

Holmstrom visited Tweedy last fall at the Wilco Loft studio on the North Side to go over ideas for the album before it was recorded. “Jeff told me, ‘I’m a band guy,’ and that he really values what happens when people play and travel together,” Holmstrom says. “He liked the sound we get with her. I think the Wilco guys would’ve made an interesting record with her, but they wouldn’t have had the shared experience we’ve developed with her, and I think Jeff wanted to document that.”

Tweedy focused on older gospel songs and a few early Pops Staples tunes to get the album rolling. The apotheosis of that approach came when Staples recorded the old gospel hymn “Wonderful Saviour” in a cold stairwell on a winter afternoon at the Wilco Loft with her backing singers.

“Jeff had these songs on his iPod that my family and I used to sing together,” Staples says. “I was used to bustin’ down on stage with all the songs I did with Ry (civil-rights era protest songs). These songs were more hopeful, it felt fresh, the style I knew from when I was a teenager when everyone was harmonizing and we’d go back and forth.”

When promoters called Staples’ management making an offer for her to appear at last summer’s Lollapalooza festival in Grant Park, the 71-year-old gospel-soul singer was incredulous.

“They want me?” she says with a laugh. “I thought I was going to be on a festival with all these kids who don’t know me. They were all going to be there to see Gaga, not me.”

Staples happened to perform the same day as Lady Gaga, but she needn’t have worried about being outshined by the pop diva. Underneath a blazing August sun, Staples looked radiant and vivacious in white. She opened her set with “Wonderful Savior” – pure, gospel harmonizing without instrumental accompaniment.

“I saw a few jaws dropping, a few eyes getting big out in the audience, like, ‘What is happening?’ ” Staples says. “Uh-oh, I was afraid of that. I thought, ‘Oh, Lord, maybe I made a mistake.’ ”

Not hardly. By the end of the performance, a raucous, outdoor church service broke out in the middle of a rock festival. The audience was clapping along, and then cheering.

“Whew! We’re off to a good start,” Staples says. “I had a feeling everything was going to be fine after that, and I was right.”