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PP Arnold + Mavis Staples
Cornbury Festival, Great Tew
SOMETIMES the old ones are the best. On a second day of the Cornbury festival dominated by 20-something female singer-songwriters of a tepid, insipid ilk, it was left to two women in their seventies to inject some much-needed soul into proceedings.
PP Arnold and Mavis Staples have followed very different routes to musical stardom – the former by moving from the US into the excitement of swinging-sixties Britain, the latter mainly by staying close to her bluesy Chicago roots.
But both have retained a heartfelt and joyous faith in the redemptive quality of music that the likes of Pixie Lott, Megan McKenna and Amy MacDonald were unable to convey on other Cornbury stages. Both also possess an easy charisma and gospel-inspired feistiness that can hardly fail to move anyone watching.
PP Arnold, first up on the festival’s secondary stage, treated us to an autobiographical set with an upbeat, amusing and sometimes touching personal commentary that took us from her early days as an Ikette (River Deep, Mountain High) through to her second hit single Angel of the Morning and on to her time as a Mod favourite with two Steve Marriott songs, If You Think You’re Groovy and Understanding.
An Anglophile, she shared reminiscences of happy times living down the road at Milton-under-Wychwood and paid homage to those in England who have helped her on her way, giving full rein to what is still a wonderful voice on Barry Gibb’s Born to Be Me and Sandy Denny’s poignant Take Me Away.
By the time she finished with her signature tune The First Cut is the Deepest, followed by the Rolling Stones’ You Can’t Always Get What You Want, she had the crowd eating out of her hand and begging unsuccessfully for more.
Mavis Staples, too, gave an object lesson in how to hold an audience. Eight years older (79, as opposed to 71) she is, if anything, the livelier of the two and, with her gravel-voiced and blues-tinged gospel edge, provides a more socially conscious offering than Arnold’s straighter take on soul.
But with Arnold dancing enthusiastically in the crowd, Staples also showed that she can entertain while delivering her message and was able to whip the punters, young and old, into a frenzy with a series of inspired treatments of Staple Singers' classics, from Respect Yourself and Freedom Highway to the gloriously extended finale I’ll Take You There.
It was quite astonishing to see the level of energy and inspiration generated by someone who might be viewed, off the stage, as just a frail old woman — and to be able to see so deep into the resolution in her soul.
Afterwards, there was more to come on the main stage at Cornbury but nothing nearly as good.
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