Mavis Staples spent her 75th birthday the way any music icon should–as an epic celebration amongst her peers. The sold-out concert on November 19 at Auditorium Theatre in her hometown of Chicago featured a wealth of talent that nearly eclipsed four hours. Musical director Don Was put together a stellar lineup of talent that ranged from Gregg Allman to Widespread Panic and featured contributions from over twenty artists.
From the 1950s to the present, Staples has offered her take on American music that has strongly influenced gospel, soul, R&B, rock and blues. The show commenced shortly after 7:30 p.m. with Joan Osborne performing “You’re Driving Me (To the Arms of a Stranger).” The evening progressed slowly, with several minute lulls between most songs but also contributed to the building anticipation of what was yet to come.
There was no shortage of entertainment. Keb Mo, Otis Clay, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin and Emmylou Harris each performed their personal interpretation of chosen works. Clay joked, “She’s also a great cook. I had the distinction of being invited to the Staples’ house for Christmas dinner. Too bad you weren’t there.” A 10-piece All-Star band remained on stage for the first set–it included Rick Holmstrom on guitar from Staples’ band, Was on bass and also featured the McCrary sisters on backing vocals.
Michael McDonald equaled Mavis on the soulful “Freedom Highway,” while noting “This is gospel that crosses over into the social mainstream; unfortunately, it’s still relevant today.” Staples finally appeared on stage an hour into the show, to perform “Respect Yourself” with Aaron Neville. She was all smiles and delivered her vocals with ferocity.
A 25-minute intermission ensued while the stage was prepped for Widespread Panic. Though the entire evening was special–involving a standing ovation after every song–Panic were brilliant on “Hope in a Hopeless World” and Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” Perhaps it was the changed dynamic of performing without the All-Star band, truly offering their interpretation that transcended both music and vocals.
Though the night played out in spectacular fashion, it frequently lost momentum between artists. This was felt particularly hard after Widespread Panic performed immediately after the intermission and transitioned into another 15-minute pause after playing two songs. There must have been roughly 90-minutes of total downtime that could have been well-served by, say, each artist giving a personal message on what inspired their individual song selection.
The second half of the show featured performances by Ryan Bingham, Grace Potter, Eric Church, Taj Mahal and Gregg Allman. Staples emerged again toward the latter part of the show and remained on stage to the end. This started with Bonnie Raitt on “Turn Me Around” and Staples proclaimed, “Thanks for coming to my party!” Raitt added, “Her inspiration is one of the most positively uplifting things on the earth.” Taj Mahal, Neville and Allman joined the pair for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and Staples added, “It was the first song our father taught us.”
As the night wore on the show progressed to greater heights, though having Staples on stage for her show definitely contributed to the energy. She danced with Arcade Fire’s Regine Chassagne as Win Butler worked through the Talking Heads’ “Slippery People.” Butler said, “Every time I hear Mavis sing it’s like a church I want to be at.”
“My producer,” announced Staples, as Jeff Tweedy made his way to the stage with son Spencer on drums. They reinforced Staples relevance to current music as they played her 2010 hit, “You Are Not Alone.” Staples capped the night with a rousing “I’ll Take You There,” with the entire Auditorium Theatre providing backing vocals.
Many fans prematurely left their seats to beat traffic and missed out on the grand finale that included the entire cast for an encore of “The Weight.” Staples opened with the first verse and each artist contributed lines as the song played out–just one of many goosebump moments that were captured by at least eight professional video cameras in the building. Look for “I’ll Take You There — Celebrating 75 Years of Mavis Staples” on DVD in the near future.
Mavis Staples 75th birthday setlist:
1. You’re Driving Me (To the Arms of a Stranger) – Joan Osborne
2. Heavy Makes you Happy – Keb Mo
3. I Ain’t Raisin’ No Sand – Otis Clay
4. Woke Up this Morning (With My Mind on Jesus) – Buddy Miller
5. Waiting for My Child To Come Home – Patty Griffin
6. Far Celestial Shore – Emmylou Harris
7. Freedom Highway – Michael McDonald
8. People Get Ready – Glen Hansard
9. Respect Yourself – Aaron Neville with Mavis Staples
10. Hope in a Hopeless World – Widespread Panic
11. For What It’s Worth – Widespread Panic
12. If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me) – Ryan Bingham
13. Grandma’s Hands – Grace Potter
14. A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall – Bingham, Potter, Griffin, Harris
15. Eyes on the Prize – Eric Church
16. Wade in the Water – Taj Mahal
17. Have a Little Faith – Gregg Allman
18. Turn Me Around – Bonnie Raitt with Mavis Staples
19. Will the Circle Be Unbroken – Raitt, Staples, Mahal, Allman, Neville
20. Slippery People – Win Butler & Regine Chassagne (Arcade Fire) with Staples
21. You Are Not Alone – Jeff and Spencer Tweedy with Staples
22. I’ll Take You There – Mavis Staples
23. The Weight – Mavis Staples and the entire cast