Originally posted on noisey
“Everyone in the room was in tears because that’s what she does to your heart,” Buddy Miller saidabout his first time seeing Mavis Staples perform at San Francisco’s The Fillmore in 1968. And indeed, 46 years later in a beautiful theater in Chicago, although it might have taken a while to get there, I imagine fans, family, and collaborators felt the same way during Mavis Staples’ 75th birthday tribute celebration.
Never forget Mavis Staples is an institution. She is a divine light, a musical matriarch, a force that—at the age of 75—inspires awe from fans a third of her age.
I had almost forgotten as I sat in hour three of her 75th birthday tribute show at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater. The theater is a glorious, old Chicago stunner that typically welcomes the likes of international symphony orchestras or the renowned Joffrey Ballet. Rock concerts are a rarity. But like the Joffrey and the symphony, Mavis is a cultural gem, a musical deity, whose music simultaneously uplifts and transcends the boundaries of age and race and genre.
The birthday show, featuring the eclectic likes of Emmylou Harris, Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire, and Bonnie Raitt, among others, was, at least at first, a disorganized and long-running mess. The very, very long list of performers began the show by playing only one song each. This could have been an interesting, worthwhile visual and musical challenge, but logistics made the set up more frustrating than enjoyable. The audience waited for long periods between each song, sometimes ten minutes. The frustration grew.
This unfortunately set the tone for part of the evening. If the organizers were not considerate enough to organize a real dedicated show, the audience would respond with a lack of consideration as well. Guests filed in and out of the traditionally more conservative and strict venue, making it difficult to pay attention to the acts.
The logistical difficulties highlighted the disparate lives of each performer and the rarity of the performance. Although I do not know for certain, the acts most likely had little time to rehearse for the show. Many such acts, like Win and Regine, were last minute additions.
Did they really fly all of these people out to perform just one song? Oh yes. Artists were willing and eager to pay tribute however they could, for really, just one song could never be enough. This is a woman whose musical influence can be felt in everything from gospel to country to R&B to rock.
And really, how often can one person claim to have seen Patty Griffin, Gregg Allman, and Jeff Tweedy all under the same roof? And so, in the end, the acts themselves were a dream. Each artist covered a different Mavis Staples or The Staple Singers song, at it was apparent in each performance how influential Mavis’ eclectic catalog is for contemporary music.
Joan Osbourne opened the evening with “You’re Driving Me (To The Arms of a Stranger).” It was a fitting choice coupled with Osbourne’s warm raspy vocals. As the show progressed each performer took to the stage and began sharing funny, quiet, and touching personal anecdotes.
As the evening progressed, the concert—which was also being filmed for a television special—felt more like an intimate session between musicians paying respect to another musician. The audience is some ways was inconsequential; these were private musical moments just being distributed, but not needing public consumption.
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals were equally one of the strongest performers of the evening, paying dues to the traditional song structure of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands,” (a song The Staple Singers covered) with an eerie, homey organ piano. I was unfamiliar with Potter’s music, but her cover was sharp, concise and heartfelt.
Taj Mahal performed a surprising and stunning cover of the old Negro spiritual, “Wade in the Water.” The song is one I’ve grown up with as I imagine most Blacks with connections to the American South have too. The Staples Singers covered the tune in 1965. Despite their Chicago origins, the tune was also a Church standard and because they got their start in Gospel churches, it only makes sense.
I found myself on my feet, teary-eyed, overwhelmed by the memory of my childhood and the lives of my ancestors before me. The cover—and the song itself—is a reminder of how music spreads, how one song or one person can ripple across the country for decades to come. In tribute to Mavis’ live and career, it was more than fitting.
Eventually, Mavis herself took to the stage, performing vivacious, spirited, and loving songs with Raitt and Tweedy. And like the true queen she is, Mavis ultimately saved the show, making the audience jump to their feet, sing-a-long and shout words of encouragement all the way from the very far reaches of the theater’s balcony.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a lineup of this many soulful singers in one place,” Raitt said. As the latter half of the show progressed, Mavis joined groups of musicians. When joined on stage by Jeff and Spencer Tweedy, she referred to them as her son and grandson.
Mavis’ voice is not just soulful. It fills up missing spaces within you. It sounds nutritional, necessary. At the end of the night, after more than four hours, and ending performances of “I’ll Take You There” and a cover of “The Weight,” I left exhausted, but ultimately fulfilled and overjoyed. That much greatness is rare and precious. Only the true legends can make such magic a reality.