Mavis Staples and the Melbourne Zoo, an incongruous pairing but one embraced with enthusiasm by the lead act. Spouting her love for the “piggedy possum” she dominated the stage and our consciousnesses with her history, her status and her unmistakable genre. In fact, the “piggedy possum” was a reference to the neon pygmy possum Staples eyed to the right of stage – a poignant reminder of the faunal inhabitants beyond the audience, grunting or bellowing themselves to sleep. “I’m gonna give [the possum] a new name. He’s a cute little guy. I’m gonna take him home to Chicago”, she gushed.
The mention of the Windy City was a coy reference to Staples’ home and her unmistakable roots. Her decades long musical lineage is hard to fathom as she is quite literally a living icon. Coming from a musical family she embodies the old school tradition of parents taking “the family on the road” which in the 1960s eventually led to connections to Martin Luther King Jnr and the Civil Rights Movement. Legendary indeed! Staples’ gospel and blues heritage is unparalleled. Songs such as Brothers and Sisters, Eyes On The Prize and You Are Not Alone merged with the magnificent Change lulled the audience into a religious and musical stupor. She may be 80 but she was a powerhouse of vocal emotion.
Staples was supported by the amazing Emma Donovan and The Putbacks. Donovan, with Naaguja/ Yamatji and Gumbainggir/Danggali heritage, also grew up in a musical family mirroring the life led by Staples. Her soulful voice was the perfect introduction to the Staples set. Both women have used music to tell stories, to unite cultures and to expose the rest of us to injustices and, in turn, to the moving stories of those affected. Donovan’s musical input, in her short 39 years, puts her in good stead to be the living legend this country is crying out for. Just as passionate as Staples, with good cause and a stirring voice that has no sign of quietening any time soon.