Mavis Staples throws a terrific birthday party. By terrific I mean that the City of Chicago declares the day in her honor, other music legends gather from all over the world to attend and she treats her guests like family (which, by the way, many of us like to think we are). So, recently, producers Don Was and Keith Wortman worked their magic with “I’ll Take You There: Celebrating 75 Years Of Mavis Staples” at Chicago’s beautiful Auditorium Theatre.
Staples is beloved for not only her music, but for what she means to the Civil Rights Movement and the light that she continues to shine in a world with far too much darkness. She is a rare human being that seems take in the joy around her, magnify it and shoot it right back out to all. At 75, she is gorgeous as ever with her great big warm smile and twinkle in her eyes. She asked us during the red carpet if she looked cool…so cool you’re hot! She sashayed right on up to that carpet with a bounce in her step, joking with us, but also got serious as she put into words her gratitude for life, love and sweet home Chicago. Several performers took time to connect on the red carpet, sharing a memory or just letting us know how much Staples means to them. The carpet was set up backstage, so it was a ringside seat to see these music greats connecting with each other, like Gregg Allman having a laugh with Otis Clay, or Keb’ Mo’ and Bonnie Raitt teasing each other like siblings. Grace Potter and drummer/husband Matt Burr, looking like they just stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine, couldn’t have been more gracious or generous with their time.
Joan Osborne kicked the concert off with “You’re Driving Me (To the Arms of a Stranger).” Earlier, Osborne told us how she had hoped to snag this song and was thrilled that she did, and that now she just needed to do it justice, which she also did. (Look for Osborne on the road playing some dates with Staples soon.) Crowd favorite Keb’ Mo’ was up next with “Heavy Makes you Happy,” followed by the very sharply dressed Otis Clay pouring soul into “I Ain’t Raisin’ No Sand.” One by one, the stars came out and gave their voice to the the Staples Singers classics. To wrap up the first set (which featured Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris and many others), Aaron Neville came out hand in hand with the birthday girl herself for a rendition of “Respect Yourself” for which the crowd, which was quite reserved until this point, pumped it up in appreciation. The entire evening had an air of reverence to it; this was a complete love fest for sure, but it was a very respectful one. Perhaps we were all still in a state of awe as each performer came out.
The second, longer set kicked off with Widespread Panic covering “Hope in a Hopeless World” and “For What It’s Worth.” Ryan Bingham gave us his rendition of “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).” Grace Potter hit the keys for “Grandma’s Hands” with Matt Burr on drums. Potter then stayed on stage for the next song with Ryan Bingham, Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris, “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” Many standing ovations ensued, and we hoped for more such collaborations as the evening progressed. Eric Church did a powerful version of “Eyes on the Prize” just before one of my favorites of the night, Taj Mahal, looking better and more spry than I have seen in recent performances, took the stage and shook it hard for an excellent “Wade in the Water.” Gregg Allman followed that up with a slower song, “Have a Little Faith,” and was also present for “Will the Circle be Unbroken” with Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Aaron Neville and Staples sitting in a semi-circle just like they did back when Pops Staples was first teaching this song to his young daughter and her siblings. Raitt and Staples, who have been on tour together this year, gave us “Turn Me Around” with Staples thanking Raitt onstage for “coming to my party, Sister Bonnie.”
As the evening began to wind down, we got a power packed punch from Win Butler and Régine Chassagne of Arcade Fire. Chassagne skipped out onto stage in the shiniest two-piece sparkler of a dress I’ve ever seen, and when Staples joined them for “Slippery People,” it was like we were witnessing a play date. The producer Staples refers to as the best ever, Jeff Tweedy, was there with his son, Spencer, on drums as they played “You Are Not Alone” from Staples’ 2010 album of the same name, which Tweedy produced. This brings us to the last song before the encore, “I’ll Take You There,” which Staples sang to a standing ovation that lasted the entire song. The big, beautiful theater must have had a pulse at that moment from the love that seemed to be pumping in that room, so much so that I’m sure Pops had to be somewhere close by. We know brother Pervis was, because Staples tried to coax him onstage to sing. I guess a big brother is the only one that could get away with saying no to her. The entire lineup came out for the big encore of “The Weight” to wrap the four-hour show. Numerous artists were integral to the evening, especially the McCrary Sisters, who seemed to be onstage through almost every song, as was producer Don Was, who played bass and kept things moving from his ever-present spot on stage.
To say I feel grateful to have witnessed this is an understatement. I am first and foremost a fan, but not just of the music. I am most drawn to this strong woman’s character and optimism in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. “You can be and do anything you can dream” is not just a flowery statement, it is Staples’ truth. In a world and business that has jaded the best of them, this woman keeps a childlike awe about her that is completely infectious. Seventy-five is just one more step on the walk that has lots more ahead. If she is willing to take us there, you can bet I am already on board. Happy birthday and thank you!
– Ali Kaufman
You can find out more about Mavis Staples, upcoming dates and the release of this tribute show on DVD here. Also be sure to check out, Take Me To River, a film released in September of last year that focuses on the history and present day STAX Museum of American Soul. It’s a fantastic mix of history and the contemporary artists keeping soul music alive.