Mavis Staples last graced the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2012, drawing an overflow crowd to the Gospel Tent. This year, the gospel and soul singer plays the festival’s Blues Tent, a slightly larger room, certainly all the better to accommodate the draw of a legend.
It’s also a more appropriate setting for the songs on her most recent album, “Livin’ On A High Note,” for which she solicited new songs from a diverse list of artists: Ben Harper, Valerie June, Neko Case, Nick Cave, Justin Vernon and several others all wrote for Staples’ powerful, church-trained voice.
Collaborations have served Staples well in this season of her nearly seven-decade career. Ry Cooder produced her first release for the ANTI label in 2007, revisiting many of the spiritual songs that, via artists like the Staple Singers, had nourished the civil rights movement.
She won a Grammy for its follow-up, 2010’s “You Are Not Alone,” crafted with fellow Chicagoan Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.
At 76, Staples’ voice is a warm, well-toned muscle, weathered and strong. Her chosen collaborators wrote excellently for it, and for her status as an icon of both music and activism, from the country soul of Harper’s “Love and Trust” to Case’s swirling, meditative “History Now.” “Action,” from Merrill Garbus, is a rousing, spirited and funky reminder that the battle for racial justice, so much a part of Staples’ legacy, is hardly behind us.
“What a terrifying time to raise our voices/ but I’m not left with many more choices,” Staples sings. “I’m scared for our children.”
“Livin’ On A High Note” has more than one local connection. Benjamin Booker, the young guitarist whose move to New Orleans a few years ago honed the rough, raw electric garage blues of his 2014 self-titled debut on A.T.O. Records, wrote the opening track of “High Note,” the taut, growling “Take Us Back.”
Trombone Shorty, who’s performed with Staples often, solos on the sunny, funky gospel-rocker “Tomorrow,” which was co-written by Shorty’s old NOCCA classmate and, of course, the current “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bandleader, Jon Batiste.
(Batiste was back in his hometown on Jazz Fest’s second weekend for a concert at the Civic Theatre on Saturday, and Trombone Shorty is more visible at Jazz Fest than rose mint tea, so guest appearances seem likelier than not.)
Tributes to and appreciations of Prince, who died unexpectedly at age 57 on April 21, were everywhere during the festival’s opening weekend and showed the breadth of his influence. Artists memorialized the Purple One across the Fair Grounds, from Grace Potter’s sweaty rock ’n’ roll set on the Gentilly Stage to the Electrifying Crown Seekers’ raucous praise music in the Gospel Tent.
The most passionate came from an artist who knew him well: Janelle Monae, whose headlining turn at Congo Square on Friday, April 22, closed 20 minutes early in a nakedly physical, wild display of grief and love that was as heartbreaking as it was cathartic.
Speaking of Mavis Staples’ collaborations, one of her most famous was with Prince. She recorded two albums for his Paisley Park label in the late ’80s and early ’90s and appeared in his 1990 “Purple Rain” film sequel “Graffiti Bridge.” During her set at Coachella last weekend, the L.A. Times reported, Staples took time out to reminisce — “He was the most beautiful spirit I ever met,” she said — and to sing “Purple Rain.” New Orleans will be in luck if the great Staples repeats the tribute to her friend at Jazz Fest.
Mavis Staples plays the Blues Tent at the 2016 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival at 3:35 p.m. Sunday.