From Local to Legend at POP Montreal with Masters of Soul: Mavis Staples, Clerel and Hanorah

Every now and again, a performer stops through Montreal bringing not just a prowess and artistry that impresses, but a living, embodied history. On Sunday, September 29th at the Rialto Theatre, POP Montreal offered one such show. Mavis Staples - a woman who worked closely with Dr. Martin Luther King alongside her father and sisters as part of The Staples Singers, sang in President Obama’s White House and has collaborated with everyone from Bob Dylan to Hozier - graced the Montreal audience with the divine power of gospel, soul, and blues.

In a dashing instance of soul stars aligning, POP Montreal called on two of the city’s oft-hyped soulful singer-songwriters to introduce Ms. Staples. Starting around 8pm, Hanorah greeted a relaxed audience with a solo Stratocaster-accompanied performance of several songs from her latest critically acclaimed EP For the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, including ingenious renditions of “Long Road” and “Saturn Return”. Besides the obvious connections one could make to the soul sisters of yesteryear like Janis Joplin, Sass Jordan, or Merry Clayton, Hanorah subtly and graciously lets you know her music does not tread on old turf. It is rare to hear a voice with a capacity of calling on a history of incredible vocalists while also moving forward in a direction that is 100% original. Best of all, Hanorah’s songs of empowerment not only left the audience with smiles on their faces and warmth in their hearts, but set the tone for what was to come later in the evening.

Following a quick intermission, the crowd was dazzled by the soft, genuine vocal stylings of Clerel. Equally understood as Montreal’s answer to Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, and Leon Bridges, Clerel stands as a prime example of a singer who can always adequately harness the power of subtlety and grace. Without any vocal pyrotechnics, he asserts himself through genuine, heart-wrenching soul and a knack for writing catchy, relatable tunes. Accompanied by his own guitar, Clerel journeyed through intimate renditions of songs off of his EP titled Songs From Under a Guava Tree such as “Blackstone”, “Wild Things”, and “Lonely Dance”. With a debonair presence and arresting falsetto, Clerel is as much a proponent of modern soul music in general as he is a behemoth in the Montreal scene.

With everyone now teased with gracious helpings of soul music hors-d’oeuvres, Mavis Staples emerged to a roaring crowd before jumping into a raucous performance of “If You’re Ready”. Indeed, we were ready to be taken to the gates of gospel-soul heaven. The Rialto Theatre became “The Church of Mavis Staples” as the artist gave genuinely amazing life advice with claims like “it’s nice to be nice. So if you see me, you better smile”, as well as her consistent crowd interaction during various soulful sonic climaxes. The setlist itself served as a narrative for Mavis’ epic 7-decade career by calling up on extended versions of classics like “Respect Yourself” and a Funkadelic cover of “Can You Get to That”, to newer tracks like 2017’s “Build a Bridge” and “We Get By” off her latest Ben Harper-produced LP of the same name. With a set-closing cover of The Band’s “The Weight” (on which she sang in 1976’s The Last Waltz) and a nearly 10 minute encore of “I’ll Take You There”, Mavis Staples proved that if soul music is categorized by anything, it is “joy, happiness and pos-i-tive vibrations”. This is a performer who - along with her minimal three-piece band and two backing vocalists - shared the healing power of music through energy, empowerment, and soaring vocals. It was an evening that truly made you glad to be a part of this lovely human species.

While Mavis brought with her a history of culture and deep soul, the evening’s performances at the Rialto succinctly demonstrated the beautiful development of soul in Montreal. Not only does this city crave the sounds of acts like the Staples Singers, it is carving out a niche of its own through emerging artists like Clerel and Hanorah who are gradually establishing the *Montreal sound* of soul. Not only was the night’s music beautiful and satisfying, but the satisfaction of knowing that Montreal stands proud as a city of soul was equally fulfilling. 

You can hear an intimate conversation with Clerel on Soul’d Out! Monday, October 7th at 8pm, only on CJLO 1690 AM. 

Lou Raskin is the host of Soul’d Out!, the show that celebrates soul, R&B, and funk in all its forms with weekly playlists and interviews with emerging local artists. Tune in every Monday at 8pm EST on CJLO 1690 AM.