Mavis Staples made her first performance of 2017 at the Chicago Symphony Center in her Windy City hometown. After opening with The Staples Singers tune, “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)”, Mavis jokingly asked, “Wait, this is 2017?” Guitarist Rick Holmstrom nodded and smiled at her. “Well, this is a good start,” Mavis laughed, “start it off right, right at home!”
Mavis furnished the famed Chicago music hall with the deep affection for and appreciation of music that comes from a seasoned performer. She proclaimed “joy, inspiration and some positive vibrations” as her three-piece band cruised into the mid-tempo funk of “Take Us Back” from her new, M. Ward-produced album Livin’ On a High Note. Her glorious rasp trilled through the catchy anthem as she revealed “Chicago wasn’t always easy / But love made the Windy City breezy.” The hometown crowd flushed with notability.
At 77 years old, Mavis commanded the stage with the vital force established by her father, leader of The Staples Singers, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and she grew adorably captivating and buoyant singing songs like the Talking Heads’s “Slippery People” and Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That.” Fans stood at the front of the stage looking for a hand to touch as Mavis shuffled in a groove before them singing, “I want to know if you can get to that,” on repeat.
Mavis has the presence of a cozy soul onstage. She’s steadfast and devout, comforting to the ear, and beaming with warm optimism. As one of the spiritual and musical voices of the civil rights movement, Mavis sermonized about America’s sociopolitical climate and how “our nation is confused and disrupted,” wherein she proclaimed she has no plans in silencing her message. “You can’t shut me up,” she yelled, “We won’t live in fear!” The crowd jumped to their feet and cheered as Holmstrom’s guitar plucked into The Staples Singers’s “Freedom Highway.” “March for freedom’s highway / March each and every day,” Mavis sang. A living witness … still singing and still marching.
The political analogies and messages continued with “Touch A Hand, Make A Friend,” Little Milton’s “We’re Gonna Make it,” and the ever commanding “For What It’s Worth” by Buffalo Springfield. It’s difficult to ignore the motivation of adding the latter to a setlist in 2017.
A noticeably fatigued Mavis applied every ounce of energy and all the power that her honey-spiked tea could provide to send fans home with her magnum opus ringing in their hearts. The Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There” left smiles on faces and singing in the venue lobby long after the lights came up. The all-encompassing feel-good hymn will perpetually remain Mavis’s trademark show closer and lifter of burdens, for good reason. After all, she’s been taking us there after all these years, with no end in sight.