Your Complete Guide to the Chicago Blues Scene
I’ll Take You There: Celebrating 75 Years of Mavis Staples
November 19, 2014
Auditorium Theater, Chicago
By Greg Easterling
On Wednesday, November 19, 2014, the city that works took care of some long overdue business.
“I’ll Take You There: Celebrating 75 Years of Mavis Staples” brought together an all-star cast of more than thirty artists and musicians to perform nearly two dozen songs from various phases of Mavis’ long-running career at Chicago’s equally legendary Auditorium Theatre.
In a very real sense, Mavis has already had several careers, any one of which would have been enough to define a less versatile performer. She grew up in the 1950s as a featured singer with The Staple Singers, the family gospel dynasty led by her father and musical mentor Pops Staples, which included siblings Cleotha, Pervis and Yvonne. In the churches of the South Side of Chicago, Mavis rubbed elbows with the legendary Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke , gospel based talents who pointed the way.
Early Staples songs such as “Long Walk To D.C.”, “Freedom Highway”, “It May Be The Last Time” and their covers of “For What It’s Worth” and “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” were part of the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement. The family sang and marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr., which provided inspiration for Bob Dylan, The Band, The Rolling Stones and many others.
In the 1970s, the Staples became an R&B hit making machine for Memphis based Stax Records, one of the great soul music labels of its time. Mavis and her family topped the charts with the funky, positive pop of “Respect Yourself”, “Heavy Makes You Happy” and “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)”.
After recording several solo albums with Prince in the 1980s, more recent times have found Mavis morphing into a significant figure on the adult alternative scene with well-received albums on various labels, such as Verve, Alligator and Anti, working with respected producers Ry Cooder, Jim Tullio and most recently Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy.
On this special evening, Joan Osborne was first to step up to the mic, opening with a soulful rendition of “You’re Driving Me (To the Arms of a Stranger)” backed by a house band led by noted producer and Blue Note Record executive Don Was; the band also included Mavis’ guitarist Rick Holmstrom, guitarist George Marinelli from The Bonnie Raitt Band, keyboardist Matt Rollings, The McCrary Sisters on backing vocals and a three-piece horn section.
Keb’ Mo’ came on second and got the crowd moving to the “Sha La Boom Boom” beat of the Staples’ Stax chart topper, “Heavy Makes You Happy.” He added a few well-placed blues licks along the way with Mavis already seated in the wings tapping her foot and nodding her approval.
One of the most downright personal moments of the evening happened next with Chicago soul and gospel legend Otis Clay, who took time to address the audience, recalling the time he was invited to Christmas dinner at the Staples house. “We should all have a grandfather as funky as Pops”, said Clay before he launched into “I Ain’t Raisin’ No Sand.”
An early five-star performance happened next with alt country hero Buddy Miller. He brought the gospel quartet, the McCrary Sisters, to the front of the stage for the spirited call-and-response of “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind Set on Jesus) from Mavis’ most recent studio album, One True Vine. Miller also recalled seeing The Staples in concert back in 1968.
Patty Griffin followed with a moving, soulful performance of “Waiting For My Child To Come Home” that captured the audience. Then it was Emmylou Harris’ turn. “What a beautiful place to celebrate,”remarked Harris as she gazed out at the nearly full house of one of Chicago’s most legendary venues. Emmylou sang a Nick Lowe song, “Far Celestial Shore,” that he wrote for Mavis to record after touring together with Wilco and Mavis.
Up next, ex-Doobie Brother Michael McDonald reclaimed the Staples message song “Freedom Highway,” with the McCrarys actively involved once more. McDonald got the crowd on its feet, singing with conviction, “Made up my mind and I won’t turn ‘round”. After that, it was Glen Hansard with the Curtis Mayfield classic, “People Get Ready,” as the house band used the Jeff Beck/Rod Stewart arrangement as its template.
Then it was star-time when Mavis came onstage for the first time of the evening with Aaron Neville in tow. Together they wrapped up the first half of the concert, dueting on one of the Staples’ most enduring hits, “Respect Yourself,” with the crowd standing and chanting its approval.
The second half of the evening began organically with a two-song set by the band Widespread Panic featuring Jimmy Herring on guitar. As talented as the house band was, it was special to have a real group with its special chemistry apply themselves to several more Staples standards. They led with Pops Staples’ “Hope In a Hopeless World” following by an especially crowd pleasing version of “For What it’s Worth” that got many back on their feet.
Talented alt country singer Ryan Bingham was next with “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) followed by Grace Potter with “Grandma’s Hands”. Potter’s moody sounding piano intro was prelude to a spare arrangement of the song for bass and drums. Potter was soon joined by Bingham, Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris for a Bob Dylan song once covered by the Staples, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” with each singer taking a verse.
Moving closer to the country mainstream, Eric Church had his “Eyes On The Prize” which also boasted a noteworthy solo from Mavis’ regular guitar player, Rick Holmstrom. There was a real buzz going through the hall when Taj Mahal took the stage for the early gospel classic “Wade In The Water”accompanied again by the McCrarys.
An extended set change followed as the crew brought Gregg Allman’s Hammond B3 onstage. Gregg handled the title track from Mavis’ 2004 Alligator release, Have A Little Faith. Then it was finally Bonnie Raitt’s turn as Mavis reappeared and spoke to the crowd, “Thank you for coming to my party!” Raitt excelled with a slide solo on “Turn Me Around” and then thanked Mavis, “What an honor it is to be here.”
Mavis stayed onstage for the rest of the night. She and Bonnie
were joined by Taj Mahal, Aaron Neville, and Gregg Allman for “Will The
Circle Be Unbroken”, a gospel chestnut from the catalogs of both Mavis
and Allman. Win Butler and
Regine Chassagne from Arcade
Fire united with Mavis on one of the
thelast Staples hits, their recording of Talking Heads’ “Slippery People”.
Then Jeff and Spencer Tweedy came on to perform “You Are Not Alone”, the title track from the first album they recorded with Mavis.
Staples reprised “I’ll Take You There” before everybody came back to finish the evening with “The Weight”, The Band classic most famously performed by The Staples for Martin Scorcese’s film, The Last Waltz.
The only issue with events of this nature is the constant interference in the flow of the concert.
Most guests came up for one song and then were hustled offstage to make way for the next. Yes, it is understandable given the large number of participants and time limitations. But it does leave you wanting much more than just one song, especially with artists of the caliber of Gregg Allman, Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris. Especially in the case of Allman where it took more time to set up his organ. It would have been great to hear more than one song even if he dipped into the Allmans’ catalog to complement his performance of a Staples song. Little provision is made for something more spontaneous to happen especially when the cameras are rolling. That’s a small complaint in the grand scheme of things.
“I’ll Take You There: Celebrating 75 Years of Mavis Staples” was a worthy tribute to one of Chicago’s most legendary singers who continues to inspire and entertain us.
Greg Easterling hosts the 12 midnight – 5 a.m. shift on WDRV (97.1 FM) He also hosts American Backroads on WDCB (90.9 FM), Thursdays 9-10 p.m.