BY MARK GUARINO | CHICAGO SUN-TIMES
The person who produced the tribute to Mavis Staples at the Auditorium Theatre Wednesday made one colossal blunder.
They forgot Mavis Staples.
She appeared in full force only near the end. The nearly four-hour performance was billed as an evening to honor the Chicago gospel-pop legend on her 75th birthday, but it really was a film taping — clunky, tediously-paced — that used the paying audience more or less as seat fillers. The house band, headed by producer Don Was, served to accompany a roster of performers who appeared to have little to do with Staples, the Staple Singers, gospel music, and, at the very least, the kind of from-the-gut vocal harmonies for which her family group is so cherished.
Instead the majority of the evening felt much like all those third-tier awards shows on network television where artists are mashed together to hit demographic targets, not organic sense. While many on Wednesday’s bill are by their own right wonderful and unique, many appeared instructed to keep the flame dialed to minimal burn. What else could explain polite but plodding renditions of “Waiting For My Child” (Patti Griffin), “Far Celestial Shore” (Emmylou Harris), “Grandma’s Hands” (Grace Potter), “People Get Ready” (Glen Hansard), and “Eyes on the Prize” (Eric Church) and others that combined to make the Staple Singers catalog sound like it originated from a dentist’s office, not the golden age of soul music.
The exception was an actual soul singer — Chicago’s Otis Clay — who, at no surprise, got the crowd to its feet. (“My main man, Pops,” he said of the Staple Singers patriarch. “You should have had a grandfather as funky as Pops.”) But he was slotted third on a 23-song evening. Other than Aaron Neville, who appeared with Staples to sing “Respect Yourself,” and the McCrary Sisters, a trio assigned backup vocals, the evening lacked any gospel or Southern soul singers or groups, which is a strange decision for an evening dedicated to someone so known for fusing both.
There was also the puzzling inclusion of Southern jam-rockers Widespread Panic, the only act on the bill assigned to more than one song. The producers neglected to provide the audience with transitional entertainment — slides? video? anything? — which created up to 10 minutes of silence as men in black shuffled instruments and moved microphones, and Was and his crew sleepily re-took their place. Then came Widespread Panic, which required a yawning 30-minute set break because the band’s road gear was moved in to perform two songs — two songs! A professional logistics manager was needed to right this ship.
Staples, of course, deserved better. It is a testament to her voice, infectious personality, and fiery spirit that when she appeared onstage — and it looked like she wasn’t going anywhere — the energy returned and the night became something wholly different. Although diminutive, she was large and took charge, and the show needed someone to do just that, even if it was her own party. Too bad it took three hours to get there, but it was worth it.
The musicians also alternated. Was and his band disappeared, replaced by the crack touring band Staples has recorded and performed with around the globe this last decade or so — guitarist Rick Holmstrom, drummer Stephen Hodges, bassist Jeff Turmes, with the addition of backup singer Kelly Hogan. They huddled around Staples as she and Bonnie Raitt sang “On My Way.” Then, Gregg Allman, Taj Mahal, Neville and Church appeared for “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Even though all were seated, Staples stood and moved toward the crowd, cajoling them join the song.
She was like that all night, musically towering over everyone, even the physically towering Win Butler who, along with his wife Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire, turned the night into a disco with their funky rendition of “Slippery People” by Talking Heads. (Staples even delivered David Byrne’s vocal hiccups.) Wilco auteur Jeff Tweedy, who produced her previous two albums, appeared with drummer-son Spencer Tweedy to perform “You Are Not Alone.” (“My producer!” “My grandson!” Staples said of both.) She and the elder Tweedy elegantly blended their voices for their dual vocals, creating the evening’s first moment of musical gravity.
Staples was clearly elated. She searched for her brother Pervis in the crowd and tried convincing him to join her onstage. During “I’ll Take You There” she vocal scatted along to Turmes and paid tribute to Holmstrom, the key figure in this recent comeback. She cracked jokes and stopped the show to scold an audience member she eyed not singing along: “You. Right there. You didn’t say nothin’.”
The night ended predictably with “The Weight,” the song Staples sang with The Band at “The Last Waltz” in 1978. Verses were swapped among singers and “Happy Birthday” was sung. Like any force of nature, Staples ultimately didn’t need a tribute; she was a wonder all by herself.