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Candi Staton review – stories, silver boots and smash hits from the great soul survivor

Candi Staton at the Sage, Gateshead, on New Year’s Eve.
‘I’m seeing out 2017’ … Candi Staton at the Sage, Gateshead, on New Year’s Eve. Photograph: Mick Burgess for the Guardian

Not many 77 year olds would consider working on New Year’s Eve, never mind doing a 75-minute shift on the other side of the world. Candi Staton however has jetted from her home in Atlanta, Georgia, to its twinned city of Newcastle for this one-off performance. After a year spent reflecting and recording, she is in the mood to ensure her first and last show of 2017 goes off with a bang. Introduced in showbiz style as “the fabulous Candi Staton”, she strides on stage in a spangly top, cropped wide-leg leather trousers and the kind of big silver boots that would fall foul of most workplace’s health and safety policies. She is every inch the disco diva.

Then again, Staton has a beguiling gravitas, and puts on no discernible airs or graces. It’s sobering to think that this grinning, friendly lady shouting “Whoo, Newcastle!” and “I’m seeing out 2017, I’m not 17!” has been performing since the 1950s, was considered a peer by the great Ray Charles, pounded US stages during the racially segregated pre-civil rights era and toured across southern states with Sam Cooke and Lou Rawls when she was 12. She doesn’t milk such history but a seemingly off-the-cuff monologue about her days in the Chitlin’ Circuit – backwoods R&B juke joints – is eye-watering, with tales of putting on ballgowns over overflowing toilets, being booed for singing the wrong songs and having to pull guns on promoters to get paid.

Staton is best known, in the UK at least, for her copper-bottomed classics Young Hearts Run Free and You Got the Love (as covered by Florence + the Machine), but she’s had hits in several decades and dabbled in pretty much every major musical genre except heavy metal. This glorious, clever-paced show reflects all this, and, like an unfolding book, delivers a different chapter every 15 minutes.

She starts as disco queen, as a clutch of shimmering dance numbers give the Sage a dusting of Studio 54. Honest, I Do Love You, from 1978, sees the front rows raise their arms as if worshipping a deity. By her 1977 smash-hit version of the Bee Gees’ Nights on Broadway people are abandoning their seats and dancing in the aisles. Backed by a fabulous band that includes former Style Councillor Mick Talbot on keyboards and Staton’s son Marcus Williams a powerhouse on drums, the first lady of southern soul dips into funk and momentarily turns comedian for I’d Rather Be an Old Man’s Sweetheart (Than a Young Man’s Fool) – yelling “Come on you old men!” at the audience. Another section showcases her as a blues singer, the heart-wrenching I Ain’t Easy to Love includes a cheeky rewrite of My Way: “Relationships, I’ve had a few – sometimes I think a few too many.”

Her several abusive marriages, a spell of alcoholism and the rest all informed her inimitable voice, a mix of big-sounding honeyed chops and a huskier quality, rich in understated melancholy. She certainly draws on a deep well for In the Ghetto, her 1972 hit cover of Elvis Presley’s standard, which won the king of rock’s blessing. She sings the all-too-relevant story – poor boy steals to feed family, buys a gun, steals a car and is shot and killed while his own child is born, continuing the cycle – like a mourning mother.

Her version of Stand By Your Man – a hit for Tammy Wynette in 1968 and Staton in 1970 – is another showstopper. Staton’s huskier, more nuanced, Grammy-nominated interpretation is quite different to Wynette’s big-lunged country version: the soulful sound of someone singing through bitter tears, trapped in a relationship she can’t escape. Her own desperate experience of an abusive relationship was channelled into her signature tune Young Hearts, Run Free, written for her by David Crawford in the mid 1970s. Four decades on, with such despair far behind her, this is a predominantly feelgood show, and she delivers the song as an extended and epic anthem to escape and survival.

The party mood continues with her most unlikely incarnation yet: 90s rave queen, which she became when the Source turned a vocal she’d done for a documentary into You Got the Love, an international hit. Her stomping, gospel-dance version here sounds hard to follow, but back she comes for 2012’s Hallelujah Anyway and the transcendent spectacle of a septuagenarian singing deep Chicago house.

“Happy New Year!” she yells, promising “great things” in 2018, including a new album. Appropriately enough, it’s called Unstoppable.

This article titled "Candi Staton review – stories, silver boots and smash hits from the great soul survivor" was written by Dave Simpson, for The Guardian on Monday 1 January 2018 02.08pm

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