It was both appropriate and depressing to have Mavis Staples close out the Thirty Fifth Annual Chicago Blues Festival on June 11.
As one of the few remaining straight-up African-American soul singers who emerged in the late 1950s to change the world with their voices ( Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Patti Labelle, and Bettye LaVette being the others ) and as the sole survivor of the fabled Staples Singers, you couldn't fault the festival for authenticity or spirit. The rub comes with the Staples' history with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and its association with Dr. Martin Luther King.
In countless performances down through the years, Staples has staunchly upheld what was at stake then. Now here we are in 2018 and all that protest isn't quite so distant or nostalgic anymore, as African-Americans, high school students, immigrants of all colors, women, the LGBTQ community and many others, are up in arms. The attacks this time are aimed at rights and protections that have already been won and that is the real downer now as it's clear that after all that effort after all those years, those rights can be reversed with a stroke of a pen. ( A protester at the Chicago women's march on President Trump's inauguration in 2017 carried a sign that read, "I can't believe I have to fight for these same rights all over again." ) For trendsetters, the term "Everything old is new again" has a certain humorbut when it comes to history, well, not so much.
All of that may be true, and this may have been a blues festival, and it may have rained all weekend, and opener Kenny Neal may have ripped through a stinging set of songs of suffering and misery, but Mavis wasn't having it. After casually walking out onstage and enjoying a standing ovation, she wowed the near-capacity Pritzker Pavilion with a lilting "Come Go With Me," which felt warmly assuring.
Staples didn't mention the president by name ( though it's hard to think her inclusion of Talking Heads' "Slippery People" was not meant as a backhanded slap ), but her entire set list seemed to address the state of the union and the destruction caused by divisiveness. Stephan Stills "For What It's Worth" popped up as a timely chestnut while the concept of making allies, uniting, and working together permeated the show. "Build A Bridge," "Freedom Highway," "We're Gonna Make It" and "Touch A Hand, Make A Friend" gently put that theme across.
Staples still found plenty of time to cut up and "Who Told You That?" was punchy and confrontational, while "Respect Yourself" crackled with fury. The closer for the night, "I'll Take You There," was five minutes of pure unadulterated bliss with the audience literally falling out of their seats when Staples opened the song with that growl. Bassist Jeff Turmes and guitarist Rick Holmstrom followed Mavis' signal and played the song with grit and punch. From that point she went off the melody and turned this most spiritual and inspiring of '70s radio classics into pure gospel as she took the opportunity to preach. Granted, she didn't get political ( "I shoulda left it alone...but when the spirit moves you, you gotta move!!!!!!" ), but it had the same effect.
All of this was something of a blast of healthy encouragement. As anyone who knows me can tell you, I'm certainly not a fan of church or Bible-thumping, but what Staples did was clearly not just that. She uplifted, she soothed and, yes, she entertained. ( While encouraging the audience to check out the merchandise at her table she cracked, "Why shop at Macy's when you can shop with Mavis?" Later on she got a big laugh when she accidentally called The Hideout Inn "The Outhouse," which had WXRT's Terri Hemmert howling. ) Granted, the show did not change any of those troubling issues but it served as a reminder that demanding something better is a right and shouldn't be taken for granted.
Heads up: Queer-fronted eclectic rockers Blacker Face play The Hideout Inn on June 23, queer rapper Roy Kinsey plays The Sleeping Village in support of brand-new release Blackie on June 17, and Kansas rockers SSION play the Logan Square Arts Festival on June 24.
More images from Mavis Staples' show are online at WindyCityMediaGroup.com .