Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples push into their sixth decades as artists while both exploring new terrain | Concert Preview | Chicago Reader

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Bob Dylan and Mavis Staples push into their sixth decades as artists while both exploring new terrain


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Earlier this year Bob Dylan released his third consecutive collection of prerock American pop standards, Triplicate (Columbia). With 30 songs spread across three CDs, it rates as the most substantial volume yet. The album not only demonstrates that Dylan wasn’t kidding around when he started essaying tunes sung by Frank Sinatra (among countless others) a few years ago—it further reveals both his ardor for and understanding of the material. While his voice is more tattered than ever, his phrasing seems to sharpen with each passing year; there’s no missing the stinging futility in his delivery of the final line of “Stormy Weather,” or the less-than-certain optimism he injects into the post-hangover vibe of “The Best Is Yet to Come.” Although some tight brass turns up on some of the collection’s more upbeat material, he relies mostly on the lean support of his nimble working band, which cohesively bridges Dylan classics with pop standards from the Great American Songbook in live performances.

On her forthcoming album If All I Was Was Black (Anti-), Mavis Staples makes clear that the civil rights battles she started fighting decades ago haven’t yet been won. Working again with producer Jeff Tweedy, she’s created the best solo album she’s done over the last couple of decades. If All I Was Was Black conveys messages of hopeful unity and sobering weariness over effectively flinty arrangements, some of which seethe with righteous anger. Straight out of the gate on album opener “Little Bit,” she addresses the horrific wave of police murders of unarmed blacks, singing through gritted teeth, “Poor kid they caught him / without his license / That ain’t why they shot him / They say he was fighting.” On “We Go High,” she borrows one of Michelle Obama’s famous lines “When they go low, we go high,” entreating listeners to embrace people with wildly differing worldviews with unconditional love—a sentiment that feels remarkable in a time where the country is so divided.   v

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