Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Mavis Staples doesn't just sing about freedom and equality. She and her Staple Singers family marched the march with Dr. Martin Luther King from Selma to Birmingham, Alabama, in 1965.
At Jefferson Center on Friday night, Staples remembered that time and her father's song, "Freedom Highway." After she sang it, she told the audience that her family, led by patriarch Roebuck "Pops" Staples, had risen every day of the march with that tune in their throats.
"I was there, uh huh," the 79-year-old performer said in chant style, as if she were on a pulpit back home in Chicago. "And I'm still here. I'm a witness. I'm a living witness!"
She continued in front of 550 at the venue: "I am out on this battlefield. I'm fighting for love. I'm fighting for hope. I'm fighting for justice. I'm fighting for freedom."
"Freedom Highway" fell in the middle of her 73-minute set, a couple of songs after a much newer one, "Who Told You That," which chides against a go-along-to-get-along attitude. "Now hold back / My, my, now don't explode / We don't wanna rock the boat / Who told you that?" she sang.
That's one from her latest album, 2017's "If All I Was Was Black," which addresses racial tension and the continuing search for justice. The record, which Wilco bandleader Jeff Tweedy produced and largely wrote, fits in with Staples' long history of civil rights activism.
In another one from the album, "Build A Bridge," she sang: "When I say my life matters / You can say yours does too / But I bet you never have to remind anyone / To look at it from your point of view."
Anyone walking into the theater on Friday should have had a good idea that in this era, fraught with differences and public disagreements, Staples would have something to say. She saved the most barbed message for her show-closing number, "No Time For Crying."
During a breakdown in the number, which she and Tweedy co-wrote, she launched a monologue aimed at President Donald Trump, or as she called him, "that kid in the White House."
"We've got motherless children living in cages," she said, in a nod to the blues standard, "Motherless Children." "They don't know where their mothers are. They have a hard time when their mother is gone. But that's what he did."
She said she was ready to march to Washington to meet the president and "shake him up."
"I believe I'm gonna run for president," she said, getting loud and raucous cheers. "Y'all got to vote for me now. Everybody needs to vote."
Cheers weren't unanimous, which was apparent before the lights even came up. People were up and walking out before it was clear there would be no encore. Many had grave looks on their faces as the lights slowly rose. One man made a show of dropping Staples' photo, which had been included in a venue program, to the mezzanine floor, then stomping on it.
Because she doesn't like children separated from their parents? Who knew that would become such a hot wedge issue?
She made her points in what was a generally joyful and energetic show. Staples showed spark throughout, though she sat once for a short spell during an instrumental intro. Her husky and gravelly voice remained a marvel, with range and power. She delivered her lyrics clearly, seasoned with as much Chicago soul and blues power as a listener could want.
Her three backing instrumentalists, led by blues beast Rick Holstrom on a tremolo-soaked Fender Telecaster run through a just slightly overdriven Vox amp, had the groove and the dynamics nailed. Singers Donny Gerrard and Vicki Randle were key to many three-, four- and five-part harmonies. Gerrard took the "Pops" lines on the classic "Respect Yourself," and dropped down to bass for a verse of the Funkadelic cover, "Can You Get To That."
What was coolest about this performance was how well the new stuff mixes with the classics. The set's beginning provided a fine example, the act hitting with Staple Singers classic "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)," followed by a 2016 number, "Take Us Back."
"I know I got love \ I know I got friends \ I've got people who love me," she sang on the second one.
In Roanoke, plenty loved her. Some didn't. And if it's her last time coming through Roanoke, she showed she wasn't afraid to speak her mind.