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Mavis Staples + Stephanie McKay at Central Park Summerstage

Ernest Barteldes By

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Mississippi is a great place to come from, but it is even a better place to get away from —Mavis Staples
Mavis Staples + Stephanie McKay
Central Park Summerstage
New York, New York
June 13, 2008

On what turned out to be a mild summer evening, Bronx-born Stephanie McKay took the stage at Central Park Summerstage's opening night with her 9-piece band comprising Manny Laine (drums), Eli Menezes (guitar), Codee (keyboards), Vicente Archer (bass) and vocalists (Lisala , Keith Fluit, Rene Trenier) with "Harlem," a funk-inflected blues number, quickly moving on to "Jackson Avenue," an upbeat song with lyrics about her native upper-New York City borough.


She didn't miss the opportunity to address the situation of the troops stationed abroad with the compelling "This Letter," a tune with lyrics inspired by actual letters from soldiers fighting in Iraq. After that, she turned up the heat with a more soul-driven number with a hip-hop backbeat. Social issues were addressed with "Tell It Like It Is," a song about urban violence and its dire consequences.


"Thinking of You," which had more of a dance vibe, turned out to be one of the concert's highlights as it showcased both the chops of Menezes and Laine, who took over the song, nearly stealing it from the singer. She closed with a "Surely Feels Good," a Spiritually-tinged tune that moved the audience, most of whom were there for the evening's headliner, Mavis Staples.



McKay, who has done steady work in the business for a number of years had a happy moment with her Central Park set, and just might have won some new fans in her quest to reach more mainstream audiences.



After a short break, the legendary Mavis Staples opened her set with Buffalo Springfield's "Everybody Look What's Going Down" and, after acknowledging the crowd, went on to ""Down In Mississipi," a nod to the state where she was born many years ago. Still in great shape despite a mildly stage-worn voice, she had the simple backing of a Chicago-based band formed by guitar, bass, drums and three supporting vocalists.

The song afforded her the opportunity to remember the dark years of the Jim Crow years in the South, with the pain of segregation and the changes brought on by the Civil Rights movement led by The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. "Mississippi is a great place to come from, but it is even a better place to get away from," she said as the tune ended, which got loud applause and a chuckle from the audience.



Another great moment came with "Down In The Water," which she approached with her trademark Gospel- rooted vocals; the band played it with a funk-blues vibe, immediately getting the audience moving.



Accompanied solely by her guitarist, she sang the poignant "Waiting For My Child to Come Home" clearly with the troops abroad in mind, as she ended the tune saying that "there are thousands of families in America waiting for their children to come home."



Arguably the best moment came with The Band's "The Weight," a song on which The Staples Singers were featured prominently during the landmark 1978 movie The Last Waltz (directed by Martin Scorcese), which chronicles The Band's final concert. On her arrangement, one of her vocalists shared the lead with her, and both received thunderous applause at the end.



Mavis Staples had delivered what her fans expected—a seamless collection of tunes that prompted everyone to sing along. It was a highly enjoyable set that kept us hoping for many returns.


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