Mavis Staples – Livin’ On A Higher Note (Anti-)


I heard that America is considering replacing one of their White Male Presidents with a suitably famous female figure on one of their bank notes.  The most likely candidate, if it does ever happen, would be Rosa Parks.  But I’d suggest a second candidate: Mavis Staples.  By now most people know about her long and eventful life and her career, which began with her time singing with the legendary Staples Singers during one of the most contentious periods in American history. And hers’ is a voice that still continues to resonate as one of the most powerful and relevant voices of the Civil Rights movement. As America faces the upcoming electoral circus, with all those old scabs picked over once again, her soothing, rational lyrics and uplifting music is as relevant today as it ever was.   But the passing of time has mellowed Staples somewhat.  Still, she still clearly wears her faith on her sleeve.  Since joining Anti-Records more than a decade ago her exceptional output has continued to grow and her audience’s hunger for it has kept track with that.

Staples is a hard worker and the rewards have paid off.  The week her new album, Livin’ on A High Note, was released it was announced that her version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s See That My Grave Is Keep Clean won a Grammy for Best American Roots Performance – her second to date.  Last year she also made the Ep Your Good Fortune with Son Little and also was heavily involved with the HBO biopic Mavis!  Hopefully, that film will find its way over to our shores sometime soon.  Through all that she’s toured constantly both in the States and overseas.  Retirement, it seems, is not on the agenda.

Now 76, her passion for togetherness, hope and social harmony is still strong.  Many of her records have a strong religious undercurrent and messages of hope through faith have been central to her music.  But on …High Note, her fifteenth studio album, she’s branched out, enfolding a diverse group of collaborators into the mix and more variation in tempo and styles.

The album starts with Benjamin Brooker’s Take Us Back – a bright, breezy nod to growing up in Chicago and reconnecting with her roots.  “I got friends and I got family,” she sings “I got help from all the people who love me.” Booker is just one admirer giving back.  … Higher note also credits song writing to  Ben Harper, Neko Case, the tUnE-yArDs, The Head and the Heart, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Nick Cave, Aloe Blacc, Son Little, John Batiste and M. Ward, who drove the producer’s console at LA’s King Size Soundlabs.  Also on board is her new kindred spirit in blues singer Valerie June who wrote the album’s signature tune High Note.

I was a little surprised not to see Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) involved this time, given his heavy contribution on her last work One True Vine and previous works.  In fact it was through Tweedy that I got to meet her at a concert in Wellington, a few years back when she supported Wilco’s Australasian tour.  Although only five foot in stature, her aura and personality just seemed to fill the room.  “Honey,” she told me, “we need to fill you up!”  And she did, later that night on stage with her huge, raspy, powerful voice.  It was a voice filled with experience, heartache, optimism, caring, and above all, faith.  How Staples uses all this on her new record, her most diverse so far, is the most remarkable thing.

All the way through, it’s clear that this is her gig.  Every writer has done their homework, taking absolute care to get inside her head, crafting lyrics the way she would, right down to phrasing.  Ben Harper’s Love and Trust, is an easy fit, with a heapin’ helping of old school gospel in the chorus.  It showcases backing singer Sonny Gerrard’s deep, soulful timbre which is paired flawlessly with Vicki Randle’s own to produce spine-tingling harmonies.  Vernon and Ward paint “Dedication” with pastoral brush.  It’s not really country-soul but you could see Ray Charles wanting to cover this one.  Nick Cave has always focussed on the darker side of religion.  He’s gravitated towards confessionals, fire, brimstone, redemption.  So it was a surprise to find him on the end of the pen writing “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me”.  It’s a lighter, more uplifting song – more akin to Staples’ earlier works.  It’s also one of the album’s most poignant and powerful tunes.

Staples recently told the American press that her agenda for this record was to ‘be joyful’.  She wanted to stop people crying, stop all the negativity in the world.  It’s her deliberate plan to spread good vibrations.  For this album, her template was Pharrell William’s Happy, she’s said.  Given her own past, she’s better equipped to speak to the audiences of today who are still reeling from economic crises, endless wars in the Middle Eastern, terrorist threats, poverty gaps and all manner of social upheaval.  Her tool kit is a deep pocket of feel-good affirmations like “Don’t Cry” and the delightfully simple adaption of Alma Bazel Androzzo’s “If I Can Help Somebody,” redone as MLK, which was quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., at the conclusion of his famous “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, delivered two months before he was murdered.  Five years earlier, in 1963, the song was recorded by Mahalia Jackson.  Her father Pops Staples encountered Dr King in 1963 and eventually became one of his confidantes.  The Staples Singers often open at his public appearances right up until he was assassinated.  So it’s probably the most personal and historic track on this album. It’s also the most stripped-down track on the record, with Mavis accompanied only by Ward’s acoustic guitar.

“If I can do my duty, as a Christian ought,

If I should sing salvation to the world he wrought,

If I can spread the message that the Master taught,

Then my living will not be in the vain.”

The writing may be diverse but in every case Staples has interpreted them with her own personal touch.  Every song is reinforced with themes of spiritual strength, community, friendship.  A cynic would claim this is no different than the stale, worn messages every churchman pumps out on every corner of every town across the country.  Yet, in Staples’ case the messages are so pure, so universal and so genuine you can’t help but be encouraged.

Tim Gruar

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Charles Bradley – Changes (Dunham)

A few years ago I got to meet Charles Bradley, as part of the promotion of his appearance at the International Arts Festival in Wellington.  We talked a lot about his backstory and how James Brown saved him.  And about he found escapism in the character of the Godfather of Soul as a very good JB impersonator.

That was two albums ago and now on his third effort you get the feeling the 67-year-old soul singer’s is ready to move on, if only just a little bit.  But it’s his underdog narrative that has never changed.  He’s still as endearing and grateful as he ever was.  That’s pretty obvious by the short gospel tinged speech in the opener God Bess America, which references the recent sentiments many Americans have towards their country and the current state of economic and political affairs .

charlesbradley_cvr_sq-2e633e64f05fd6a721243e370546057fcf274dc7-s300-c85If you line them up Changes is his most straight forward album but it definitely documents the growing dynamics between himself and the band.  ‘The Screaming Eagle Of Soul’ now takes full control and ownership of his musicians – the Daptone session musicians the Menahan Street Band (replaced on tour by The Extraordinaries) – and in turn they respond to the leadership creating some of that magic BB King and others of his generation mustered up during the best albums of the 70’s Soul era.  That’s not surprising, given it’s the label’s house sound.  Still it’s a satisfying outcome all round.

Here and there you get smatterings of hip-hop drums and a bit of Vernon Reid from guitarist Thomas Brenneck.  There’s even a spot of ‘name that tune’, like at the end of Nobody But You when the horns break into the sax riff from Seals and Crofts 1972 hit Summer Breeze or the piano jam at the beginning of You Think I Don’t Know (But I Know) which is gotta be fingered from Freddie Scott’s long forgotten single (You) Got What I Need.

Lyrically Changes is pretty much the same as his previous works but his vocals are more versatile this time, more light and shade.  And even better less James and more Bradley.  ’ There’s plenty of old skool funk on Good to Be Back at Home, where he sings about being a latecomer international headline act and his bittersweet feelings about leaving and returning home (Bradley still lives in his mother’s basement).  His faith is still pretty strong throughout: “Heaven is crying, the world is shaking / God is unhappy, the moon is breaking / Blood is spilling, God is coming.”  Changed For the World reads like a fire and brimstone pulpit piece, albeit wrapped in a gospel groove.

But overall this is an album about love and relationships.  Good ones, wronged ones, making up and falling apart – the usual stuff.  Most obviously it’s on the super-retro Things We Do For Love, which is dowsed liberally in doo-wop accompaniments.  But the most intense moments come with a Black Sabbath cover, and the album’s title, Changes.  It’s a bit unexpected but it works.  A deeply personal ballad about a breakup is turned into an aching tribute to his late mother, who originally neglected him in his youth and accepted him back as her caregiver during her last years.  “I’ve lost the best friend I’ve ever had.”  The song and the accompanying video are all about Bradley at his most vulnerable.  It’s definitely as tender as anything Sufjan Stevens has made recently.

Unlike his last album, Victim of Love, Changes offers more variety and more soul, if that’s possible.  It also goes a little way towards establishing Bradley as more than just another retro act.  His sound is clearly vintage but that’s not a bad thing.  The spectre of JB is still there.  He’s still got a way to go to find his own voice but on this album that train has definitely left the station.

Tim Gruar

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Damien Binder – A New World (Binder)

binder_anw_300px72dpiWe here at The 13th Floor were lucky to get a visit from Sydney based singer-songwriter Damien Binder, who popped in to promote his new album A New World, his fourth solo effort, and he very kindly played three songs for us.  Recorded in both over here and across the ditch, Binder’s roped in a few mates, to flesh out a bigger sound, including Sydney producer Michael Carpenter (Perry Keyes, Youth Group, Bryan Estepa), long-time partner in crime musician Bob Shepheard, drummer Wayne Bell (Bic Runga, Tim Finn, Dave Dobbyn, Gin Wigmore), guitarist Dave Hatt (Bryan Estepa Band) and Kylie Whitney (BV’s).

Binder’s been making moody alt-rock for the last ten years, having split from Second Child after a five year stint.  The band shot to local fame in the early 2000’s with their debut “Slinky” and were regular openers for international acts like The Jesus and Mary Chain, Fugazi, Hunters and Collectors and Nirvana.  As a solo, Binder’s sound is a little bit more mellow.  Still, he’s enjoyed good company, performing SxSW (Austin, Texas), supporting David Gray, Marianne Faithfull and Ani De Franco. And he’s been nominated for an APRA Silver Scroll Award – twice!

On A New World Binder looks to ’80s English jangle-pop and Aussie indie for his template.  Parallels with Commotions, The Go-Betweens, The Church and The Triffids are obvious, especially on the title track.  There’s also a little self-deprecation in there, a true Kiwi trait – “I used to be less cynical….will my love go round, I drift through empty towns”.  Breaking Beyond Me starts off with a familiar Lloyd Cole intro but finds its way towards classic DD Smash, with a great commercial hook in the chorus.  Not all of it’s perfect, though.  The softer Won’t Let You Down Again is a trifle too saccharine for my tastes, leaving the sugary sweet after taste of a Poison power ballad.

If there’s a theme running through this album, then it’s the yearning to rekindle lost relationships.  Time and again you get the inkling that Binder has a few unfinished chapters to complete.  He pretty much spells it out on You I came Back For.  It chugs along with a mainline groove reminding one of Ron Sexsmith at times.  Over is even less subtle “Now it’s Over, It’s Taking me Over”.  Binder doesn’t believe in burying his feelings in dense, unfathomable prose to get his point across.  He’s about the conversation, not the intrigue.

Binder’s music borders on country at times but is predominantly main road Indie.  You can totally see it working in a Melbourne pub – the kind with ancient brick walls, stained glass windows and brass taps.  With its familiar indie commercial swagger it would fit right in with a good Pinot or a craft beer as it breezes along.  Nothing too challenging here.  Only the closing track, Way Gone really grabs your attention.  “Excuse me, I’m trying to work here….”  Binder looks up from his guitar to address his audience and acknowledge there might be someone actually taking the time to listen.  And so they should.

Tim Gruar

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Graham Nash – This Path Tonight (Blue Castle)

graham-nashThis is Nash’s first solo effort in nearly 14 years.  And there is something of a question over it.  Why now?  What’s driving the need to come to the surface again?  True, former colleagues like Neil Young and David Crosby have been motivated to speak out against the sad state of America, and the world for that matter.

After all, this is the place they fought so hard to correct in the 60’s and 70’s.  Ironic, isn’t it, that the same baby boomers that challenged global corporatisation and the scourge of American empirical growth are now seated in the same board rooms and leading the charge – or at least consumerist slaves to their products and political rhetoric?  But for Nash the fight isn’t about politics, drugs or big corporates.  Not even war – unless you include his own internal battles.  For his placard, Nash looks those universal themes of love, loss, and finality to paint his slogans.

Now 74 years old, the former Hollies singer and Americana superstar can still offer something of a unique perspective on all three of these subjects, partly because many others his age just simply aren’t writing any more – Leonard Cohen being the most notable exception.  Sure, back in those Hollies days it was all about young love and flirting under umbrellas but what about now?   Looking back on families, relationships, loves lost, ruined by stupid acts or bad decisions.  And what about those that survived it all?

Now, I’m not saying Nash has all the answers but he does like to dwell deeply on the questions of personal legacy and direction. The album opens with the title track, acknowledging that he really doesn’t know where he’s going any more, like he’s just going through the motions without a destination.  You get the feeling he’s become some kind of ghost of his former self.  “I try to answer all that’s asked/ I try my best to be myself, but wonder who’s behind this mask.”
Of course, there’s a backstory.  A few months prior to this album’s release Nash revealed that he’d separated from Susan Sennett, his wife of 38 years.  He then went on to claim never work again with David Crosby, essentially closing down 47-years of CSN.   And for the first time since his late teens he’s writing on his own terms and conditions.  No band rules or record execs dictating every move.  At some level, this is a grumpy old man boxing at shadows.
So with something of a leap into the clouds, Nash gets out of his comfort zone going a bit gushy on a self-revelatory ballad to his new girlfriend.  Myself At Last is a gentle, folky tune that begins worrying, “Is my future just my past?” but ends satisfied with a new path.   He’s in his happy place, at least romantically.

But there are a few expected bittersweet references to earlier glories playing with CSN&Y and The Hollies (or possibly his earlier New Castle rock’n’roll days) of the sun-bleached Golden Days – “I used to be in a band, made up of my friends… when music had no end.”  But it does, doesn’t it?  And the question remains, as put on the closer Encore, “How’re you gonna feel if the music dies?”

If you need to hammer home the mortality question then look to Back Home mourning slide-guitar groaning and ethereal, gospel vocals for the cue.  You can’t help noticing just a slight hint of the old CSN backing harmonies in there, too.  “Take your time, ’cause time will take you… Mother Earth will soon be calling you back home.”

He might be in his 70’s but on wax you’d never know.  Time hasn’t really aged him in that respect.  In fact he still sings with a fresh, sweet tone.  Others of the same vintage would have dropped a few keys or sounded rougher around the edges these days.  But not Nash.  he could probably still put out pretty credible versions of the early CSN hits like Marrakesh Express or Carry On, even now.

While his contemporaries are banging on about the decay of the universe Nash is more interested in his own decay and rebirth.  So for that alone, it’s worth listening, if only to glimpse your future.

Tim Gruar

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Tahuna Breaks: Last Time Around (Interview)

Influenced by artists ranging from James Brown to Daft Punk, Auckland outfit Tahuna Breaks have been making a mean mash up of funk, disco, soul, live electronica and roots for over 12 years.  They’re a group that have grown and contracted over the years, with live configurations varying between six and 10 members, always producing an energetic and raw live show.  By their own definition they are there to ‘put ants in ya pants’ and party.  This Saturday they play their last show – Ever!  Hailing from out West, Tahuna Breaks have released four albums and also a live concert DVD.  Regulars at major festivals and events has seen them touring both here and overseas, playing festivals like the Big Day Out, Rhythm & Vines/Alps, Splore, WOMAD and Homegrown.  The 13th Floor’s Tim Gruar caught up with the band’s saxophonist Jonny McClean to reminisce a bit.

It’s a bittersweet time he reckons but also a bit of a release, too.  McClean’s packing for London to do his OE before he hits his thirties but finishing up with Tahuna Breaks will be more like leaving day at the office.  I suggest that he should check out Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in Soho.  He might even meet Kiwi Jazzman Nathan Haines, who’s a regular there.  “I might.  Could be awkward, though.  I once tried to chat up his wife!  Aw!  You know Musos’s – always trying it on, eh?”  And he’s had plenty of time, too.  For McClean there’s been over 8 year’s worth of bars and festivals, opportunities for many brief encounters.  And it’s been a long, fun ride.  Shame it has to end.  “Yeah,” he tells me,  “This week end’s our last show ever.  But it may have just sold out, so you gotta love that.  We go out on a bang”.

Named after the West Auckland street where they first began jamming Tahuna Breaks originally started as an instrumental band in 2005, inspired by watching a local funk act playing at a nearby bar.  Back then the line-up was Marty Greentree (guitar/bass), Tim Gemmell (drums), James Winkle (bass/guitar) and Kelsey Serjeant (tenor sax). They began gigging at a nearby pub playing four or five original songs and a stack of improvised covers.  After saving enough pennies they piled into Auckland studio The Rock Factory to make a three track demo, one of which, Crisis Situation, got some airplay via Jason Kerrison’s show on Kiwi FM, and that was the exposure they needed to really get off the ground.  The following year the band recorded their first full length album with producer Andrew Buckton at Studio 203. Reflections contained a range of styles from funk, rock, soul, dub to drum and bass. In order to play the songs on the album live, the band recruited Tim Baker on keyboards and Tom Charleson on guitar and took on their first national tour during 2007. It was also the time Jonny McClean joined on alto sax along with Adam Fuhr on keyboards.

eight_col_tahuna_breaksPersonally, for  McClean, it’s been an ecstatic 8 year journey.  “I moved up to the big smoke (Auckland) after finishing Uni and went to (keyboardist) Tim Baker for a few beers.  Their saxophonist at the time, Kelsey (Serjeant), was heading to Europe, on a sabbatical, so they asked me to stand in for a gig or two.  “I was just starting my first job and I had to take time off to go play some international festivals.  But I was stoked to be in the band.  Before that I’d done a few things with high school bands but that’s pretty much it”.  That later led to a fully grown membership and some serious workloads on their album Black, Brown and White Brown & White’ (released in 2009). “Yeah we go into trouble for that video.”  He means the controversy that arose around the animated video for the album’s second single Giddy Up, which was a major hit Down Under.  Directed and illustrated by Leah Morgan and produced by Fish N Clips, the video featured a highly stylised sperm as the pinball in a whimsically sexual pinball machine and was initially banned from YouTube.  As a publicity stunt and protest, was uploaded to Youporn, where it garnered even more notoriety.

tahuna-breaks-posterThe band was at the height of its powers then, performing a number of large festivals and gaining a reputation that eventually took them to Glastonbury.  “Yeah, we did that one last year.  It’s like Splore on a major level,  chilled but expansive.  It was a major buzz to perform to hundreds and thousands of people like that.  The festival has a great vibe.  People totally get music, not there to just get stoned.  It’s not full of wasted munters who don’t give you any respect.  Glasto is a music lovers festival.  We got a lot of love back.”  Jonny can remember a fair few festivals where the audience totally got into the band’s music.  “But there was one, at a Jazz Festival in South Korea.  We came on after this amazing Funk Fusion band.  They were really cool but the audience we so chilled.  They just sat on the grass, hanging out.  Some had their back turned away from the stage, ignoring it.  We thought “What are we gonna do?”  We’re used to audiences up and going nuts on the dance floor.  We played a couple of songs and no reaction.  It was dead air, man.  Fortunately, Tom had a few mates back at school and he knew a few words from old school friends he’d used to hang with.  So he shouted to the audience “Get Up, Get Down!” (In Korean) and a few other phrases.”  And they all got up!  They are so conformist over there when somebody tells you – you do it.  And they did it!”

So given that success, why is the band splitting?  “Well, it’s that Fleetwood Mac thing’, he says, with a mischievous grin, “All those bizarre love triangles, bound to cause tensions.”  Seriously, though the real, more down to earth reasons are mostly about whanau.  “We’ve all grown up.  Only one or two can carry on the single life. Marty Greentree has family and an office job.  Suit and ties these days.    So have the others.  Each year we come back for touring, having a great time somewhere exotic, with our tail between our legs and have to pick up where we left off.  Our families are looking more and more to us to grow up and settle down to the grind.  Many have day jobs and other things so as we get older it all gets harder to do.  We wanted to go out whilst we were on top – at our height.  Not when we were slipping off the peak.”

Tahuna Breaks will perform two sets on the night including a more intimate acoustic set at the beginning of the show to accommodate their back catalogue, followed by the full ten piece band and guests.

Tim Gruar

May 14th – The Studio
Tickets available from

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Anohni – Hopelessness (Rough Trade)


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Listening to Anohni’s (aka English born American  Antony Hegarty)  new album I can’t help thinking of a lyric on Bowie’s famous song Rebel Rebel – “… She’s not sure if you’re a boy or a girl.”  For new comers they will most certainly think this.  But to fans of her former group Antony and the Johnsons this will be no surprise.  After all, the band was inspired by transgender rights activist Marsha P. Johnson and the group explored human relationships many times through that lens.

But with the Johnsons, the music had a wonderfully delicate, sometimes feminine quality about it.  It was still quite clear that there was a woman behind the music, playing an elaborate range of characters – sometimes strong, sometimes vulnerable, sometimes a hero, sometimes a feminist, sometimes a lover, sometimes a man, sometimes a girl.   Like Florence Welch, Anohni has a real feel for the dramatic, engaging swelling orchestral manoeuvres and crashing crescendos.   So it’s both a revelation and a huge surprise that her new album, Hopelessness, comes across as so stark and on it she is so androgynous.  To continue the Bowie link, this is her Berlin album.  Her Low, perhaps.  The song 4 Degrees is a bleak, thumping digital opus with a stark message about climate change:  “I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze, I wanna see the animals die in the trees”.

Even more chilling is Watch Me, with this strange, cold narrative about being watched at all times:  reading, watching pornography, getting dressed, talking to friends.  “Daddy, I know you love me because you’re always watching me”.  It’s a creepy, but sexless delivery, backed by an even icier 80’s synthetic soundtrack.  References to Visage’s Fade To Grey are likely to be deliberate.  It’s the disturbing David Lynch soundtrack with a sinister undercurrent about the rights of women in the age of the digital eyeballs.

There are moments when the mask is lowered, if only temporarily.  On I Don’t Love You Anymore, we get stark picture of a rejected lover hugging herself in a dark, lonely apartment, feeling empty and exposed.  In her head, she runs through her hate list justifying the reasons for separation and progressing ever faster down the tunnel of self-loathing It’s a return of sorts to The Johnsons’ Thank You For Your Love – in reverse.

The most startling song here, though, is Obama which asks simply “What have you done since you took office?”  The delivery is like some digital, impersonal jury drone chanting a series of failed accomplishments like the compromises on shutting down Guantanamo Bay.   You can’t help thinking of Gerald Scarfe’s grotesque images of authority figures like the teacher from The Wall, sneering and spitting their contemptuous bile.

Another is the back loops that open Violent Man, which is again both chilling and challenging.  It plays over again and again like that scene from the film Poltergeist when the TV stuck between channels – the spectre of repeat offences manifested in horror film tape cut’n’paste ups.  There is much to explore here on the simple but intricately layered work.  It’s not pretty but real life seldom is.  “I don’t want your future, I’ll be born before you’re gone” she sings on Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?  You get the impression that Anohni is not happy with human kind – with its rules and regulations and its propensity to exploit everything.  In the bleak there is beauty.  With constant themes of hopelessness, loss and global climate Armageddon this is indeed an intensely black celebration.

Tim Gruar