One of the best moments of The Staple Singers’ performance of “The Weight” in The Band’s The Last Waltz—a highlight of a highlight, if you will—comes after the song’s final notes. There’s a pause, those last “whoa-ho-HO-ho” harmonies still hanging in the air, and then Mavis Staples leans forward, grins and whispers “Beautiful.”
It’s quiet—both in its subtlety and its literal volume—but you can feel the love she has for the music, for her family, for her friends in The Band. And now, nearly 40 years later, she’s got a Waltz of her own, an all-star tribute concert celebrating her 75th birthday (which was way back in July, but who’s counting?) at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. But you can forget about that “last” part; this is no final farewell. Staples has no plans to stop touring, and she’s already looking forward to doing the whole thing over again: “We’ll see you again in five years…when I’ll be 50,” she joked to the crowd near the end of the almost-four-hour show.
Joan Osborne opened the festivities with a surprisingly strong version of “You’re Driving Me (to the Arms of a Stranger),” setting the tone for an evening of artists raising their game and rising to the occasion for Staples. There were some unexpected song choices, but none that felt like missteps. (If you had told me before the show, for example, that my favorite performances of the night would include Michael McDonald doing the civil rights anthem “Freedom Highway” or Widespread Panic covering Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth”—which the Staple Singers recorded in ‘67—I would have laughed at you.) Glen Hansard delivered a commendable rendition of “People Get Ready” (albeit with a huge assist from the McCrary Sisters), and Buddy Miller, who took the stage lamenting the fact that he had to follow Otis Clay, did a rousing cover of “Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus)” off of Staples’ latest, One True Vine.
But the true highlights came from the woman herself, whether she was performing “Respect Yourself” with Aaron Neville, joining Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Regine Chassagne for Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” doing “You Are Not Alone” with Jeff Tweedy and Spencer Tweedy (who she adorably introduced to the crowd as “my grandson”), participating in a stunning version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” with Neville, Gregg Allman, Bonnie Raitt and Taj Mahal or just taking us there for the umpteenth time with her own band towards the end of the night.
Was it a perfect show? No. Because it was being filmed for DVD release, there were frequent set changes and long pauses in between songs that sometimes messed with the evening’s pacing. Patty Griffin had some trouble with her monitor before her otherwise-excellent “Waiting for My Child to Come Home.” The vocals weren’t mixed right on the group performance of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall.” But ultimately, none of that mattered. What made Mavis 75 truly special was the outpouring of love for a legendary artist.
Clay told stories of Staples family Christmas dinners. Miller recalled seeing them play at the Fillmore in the ‘60s and how “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.” Grace Potter described Staples as “one of the women who influenced me most in the world.” There were too many onstage hugs to count.
For the grand finale, it was all-hands-on-deck for “The Weight,” and once again, the best moment came after the last notes: after all the stars aligned, joined hands and took one final bow, Butler led the crowd in a spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and Mavis Staples, feeling the love, doubled over with emotion.
Mavis 75 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’re 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