BeachLife Sunday a show of force
Mavis Staples, and the Black Crows deliver memory-making performances
by Garrick Rawlings
In a truly righteous world Mavis Staples would have headlined Sunday night in Redondo, the final night of this year’s highly successful Beachlife Festival. Righteous in the sense of accomplishment, talent and ongoing relevance, rather than nostalgia.
Staples began singing in her family’s Chicago-based band, The Staples Singers, led by her father, Pops Staples. She is the sole survivor. The Staples singers were Martin Luther King Jr.’s de facto opening act throughout the Equal Rights Movement in the ‘60s. She sang with her heroes, gospel legend, Mahalia Jackson, and soul legend, Aretha Franklin. She performed at Woodstock, and released a stellar cover of The Band’s classic, “The Weight,” in ’68. She then immortalized the song with The Band themselves in Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film The Last Waltz. And she has multiple Grammys.
She continues to have a great run with recent award-winning solo albums, with Ry Cooder and Jeff Tweedy serving as successive producers. Presently she tours with a crack band of LA luminaries. Her longtime touring band leader is legendary guitarist/singer Rick Holmstrom. Greg Boaz is on bass, from the Blasters and the Dave Alvin bands. Her long-time back-up singers, who also take leads, are Saundra Williams and Kelly Hogan.
Staples’ mid-day, hour-long set in cool and sunny May beach weather, included contemporary selections as well as Staples Singer classics. Before launching into the Staples classic, “I’ll Take You There,” she mentions that she’s been at this for 74 years.
I saw a few youngsters in the crowd asking their older companions if it was true. It was heartwarming to see them take to heart that there was someone very special on that stage. Mavis went on to say she’s been waiting a long time to play here, and was only waiting to be asked.
“I met your mayor – he’s gooood looking!” she said.
Backstage, following their set, I caught up with drummer extraordinaire Steve Mugalian, who’s holds down the swingin,’ rock-steady for Ms. Staples. He’s another LA, by way of Chicago, a bonafide go-to cat.
“We came down from a fundraiser in Seattle last night, arriving this morning for Beachlife.” Explaining how he became Mavis’ drummer, he said, “Rick (Holmstrom) is an old friend of mine, we played in a lot of blues bands over the years and he got the original [Mavis] band together 16 years ago. Greg joined me three years ago, we’re all friends and have played in many different formations over the years.”
This shows in their performance. It very much sounds, and feels like a real working band, rather than a for-hire band. Their longevity really come through in concert. At one point, the band breaks it down to only Mavis and Mugalian, a scatting and percussive duetting showdown, Mulagian breaks it down for me: “It was in place before I joined the band, and it just developed. Donny Gerrard, our late backup singer, who passed away about a year ago gave me a hint about what to play there. It was something like ‘Caravan,’ that’s what she likes to hear – I just sort of play a jungle beat and I never know what she’s gonna do, totally winging it, which I like.”
Steve shared that they’re making plans to record an album with Mavis with this band, which is great news.
Next up was Noah Cyrus, younger sister of Miley, adorned in a stylish chiffon gown but now missing her eyebrows. Her music is a modern mix of pop and country, maybe aspiring to Billie Eilish territory — good musicians in her band but it was tough to sort out any individual style, especially with the ever-present ambient backing tracks. And after experiencing the very real Mavis Staples, hearing the jr. Cyrus belting out “I Got So High That I Saw Jesus,” it made me wish good ol’ Miley was there instead, belting out some Led Zeppelin or other hard rock that she was performing over the covid. She nails that stuff with style, swagger and heart far better than the Greta Van Fleet boys from Michigan. Her voice has balls.
The Head And The Heart, a home-grown, do it yourself Seattle band, had great success with their self-produced, self-titled first album, a rootsy, harmonies and melodic collection of pop and folk-rock reminiscent of the Lumineers, whom they’ve collaborated with. They’ve since been signed to Warner Brothers and have lost an original member. The melodies and harmonies are still there but this performance was lush with backing tracks, and very repetitive beats instead of inviting grooves. They garnered an enthusiastic response from their knowing fans, and although their performance was full of heartfelt emotion, it just droned on after a while.
The band Caamp, from Columbus, Ohio, was a welcome sound of organic performance, the audience’s enthusiastic response was instantaneous. Caamp started out as a guitar – banjo folk duo, Taylor Meier (vocals, guitar) and Evan Westfall (banjo), which then grew into a trio with bassist Matt Vinson. Now they tour with a keyboard player and drummer. They are an infectious group who play well together. Their set evolved from acoustic based into electric guitars, a welcome youthful, organic direction leading into the evening of classic rock.
John Fogerty long suffered through a bad business deal involving ownership of his very own songs, back to the Creedence Clearwater Revival days, all the way up to January of this year, where at long last, he rightly regained the ownership of all those great CCR songs he wrote. He is understandably jubilant about it, and he referred to that long awaited victory throughout his set, giving his wife Julie much deserved credit for ramrodding that effort. He also praised her for re-acquiring his long-lost (44 years) CCR-era Rickenbacker guitar he gave away at a low point in his life. It was a family affair all around with his sons Shane and Tyler sharing the stage with him on guitar, along with Richie Millsap on drums, Jessie Wilson – bass, Bob Malone on keyboards and sax solos by Bob Stone.
Fogerty’s songs list is an American songbook, he hit every one of his greatest hits along with his two biggest solo hits, and a more recent song written for his wife. His set was the most enthusiastically received of the day. Everyone knows these great songs, and I believe the demographics of the crowd were largely his people, as well. The band was great, John, admittingly so, plays guitar these days better than he ever did. There were a few exciting and dynamic guitar duels with his sons that riled up the place. His stage patter was cheerleadingly juvenile, redundant and pandering at times, but then he’s always been like that, and it was good to see him genuinely free of the bitterness that has plagued him over the decades due to his disputes with his CCR partner and brother Tom, and the horrors he dealt with regarding Fantasy records and Saul Zaentz. These are good times for Tom. He also celebrated the recently uncovered and released Creedence Clearwater Revival at Royal Albert Hall 1970, a documentary and concert performance from these four boys from El Cerrito. It is amazing to think these guys were doing that at the very same time that The Beatles’ career was winding down. They were just rural California kids and they were killing it, nine Top Ten singles in just two and half years (’69 – ’71), the biggest American group of their time, rivaling, and at times, outselling the Beatles.
Finally, closing out Beachfest Life 2023 were the reunited and revamped Black Crowes, the Brothers Robinson (Chris and Rich) are back at it in full force. Other than the two brothers, this lineup is far removed from the band on their beloved and classic debut, the 1990’s Shake Your Money Maker. There’s been a reported 20 different band members along the way. Even Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page joined up with the Crowes for a tour that, to this day, was mysteriously cut short. But they left us with the great live recording Live at the Greek. The Crowes this night were hitting their greasy, rock and roll Faces/Stones marks in stride, the brothers performing in harmony instead of acrimony. It was nice to see. ER