Mavis Staples 75 Birthday Celebration [Review]

There’s nothing like gettin’ the band back together…

Although Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko and the gang weren’t there, the packed audience at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre was given a classic rendition of “The Weight” at the “I’ll Take You There – Mavis Staples 75 birthday celebration”, nearly thirty-eight years after Martin Scorsese filmed the Staple Singers soulful interpretation of that song for The Band’s farewell concert film, “The Last Waltz”.  Leading up to that finale was a 4-hour string of songs performed by and for a star-studded cast of Mavis’s friends and fans.  If this is what “preaching to the choir” sounds like; I’m IN.

There was such a loving spirit present on stage, the artists sharing a bond of appreciation for what Mavis and the Staple Singers pioneered with their music and activism.  Before the show, Michael McDonald commented that the Staple Singers were the first act that “crossed over from gospel, and sang songs about what was really going on.”  As Grace Potter put it, “Mavis blends spirituality, sensuality and social consciousness.”

Mavis is undoubtedly something special.  Buddy Miller said “(he) knew” the first time he saw her, when the Staple Singers opened for Big Brother & The Holding Company at the Fillmore East in 1968.  The look he gave when I asked him, “What was it about her?” might have said it all (and DUH!)… but Grace Potter verbalized it with: “You can feel the crackle in the air”.

You could feel that crackle at Auditorium Theatre when Mavis joined Bonnie Raitt on “Turn Me Around”, joined Raitt, Taj Mahal, Gregg Allman and Aaron Neville on “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, and when Mavis, Jeff and Spencer Tweedy performed “You’re Not Alone.  And I thoroughly enjoyed Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Grace Potter and Ryan Bingham covering “A Hard Rains A-Gonna Fall” (supposedly THIS Staples version was recorded in 1968 at the Fillmore West).

Energetic highlights of the night included “Wade In The Water” by Taj Mahal, and “Slippery People” performed by Mavis with Win Butler and a boogying Regine Chassgne of Arcade Fire.  While you’re waiting for the DVD release, enjoy of one my favorite version of ”Slippery People”, performed by the Staple Singers on Soul Train.

Keith Wortman’s Blackbird Productions put together this once-in-a-lifetime 75th birthday celebration, under the musical direction of Don Was and Buddy Miller.  Wortman is a fan himself, appreciating the meaningful and emotional moments he helps create for the musicians – and everyone – producing these artist celebrations for the likes of Johnny Cash, Levon Helm, Lynrd Skynard, and living legends Gregg Allman and Dr. John.  Next up, “The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris” (www.songsofemmylou.com).

To close out the night, Emmylou, Bonnie Raitt, Gregg Allman, Taj Mahal, Keb’ Mo’, Aaron Neville, Win Butler, Regine Chassagne, Jeff & Spencer Tweedy, Glen Hansard, Ryan Bingham, Eric Church, Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin, Otis Clay, Michael McDonald, Grace Potter, Marty Stuart and Widespread Panic joined Mavis Staples and her house band on “The Weight”, followed by a full auditorium “Happy Birthday” sing-a-long, which left this legendary performer overcome with emotion.  Besides her spirited performance, watching Ms. Mavis sitting side stage, clapping and singing along to each and every song, and seeing the grins on everyone’s faces during the performances, I’d say it was one helluva 75th birthday party.