Following some hard rain Sunday afternoon, a cold front rolled into Chicago, shrouding the closing day the 2018 Chicago Blues Festival in the fog that came with the sudden drop in temperature. From the Pritzer Pavilion, you could see none of the buildings lining Michigan Avenue, and just a rough outline of the Prudential Tower as the building's lights tried to cut through the hazy white low-hanging clouds.
A different type of fog rolled into Millennium Park at about the same time, as 78-year old Mavis Staples took the stage for what I estimate was a 90-minute set. I was so enraptured that the time displayed on my watch didn't register.
I am not sure how you describe that voice. Is it deep? Is it soulful? Is it from the church? Is it warm and friendly, or knowing and weathered? All are fitting descriptions. But maybe the best description is a voice modulated by a whammy bar, resulting in a mix soulful sounds with a tubular rasp. And let there be no doubt, she still has the full pipes. No resting on her laurels, which include an award from the National Endowment for the Arts, membership in the Rock and Rock Hall of Fame, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, several honorary doctorates, induction into the Blues Hall of Fame, and recognition as a Kennedy Center Honoree.
Over the course of the three-day festival, I saw plenty of female blues singers--Sharon Lewis, Zora Young, Ms. Jody, and Nellie "Tiger" Travis. All were quite good, but Mavis: She is a cut two or three above all of them.
This frontline veteran of the Civil Rights movement brought stories of her days marching and sitting down at lunch counters, the time she spent with Martin Luther King, and the struggle. She also brought a top-flight group of musicians, all dressed in black attire. No blue jeans, tank tops, or bare feet on her stage. She was elegantly dressed in black pants and a pinkish-magenta cape over a black chemise. In the band were the handsomely angular Rick Holmstrom on lead guitar, the ever-so-lean Jeff Turmes on bass, and Stephen Hodges on drums, who has appeared on some amazing Tom Waits albums. Providing additional vocal support were Donny Gerrard, who could go deep, as well as high, and Vicki Randle, who added some nice percussion to the mix.
Mavis is all business. Typically, bands for well-known singers pad the set with a few familiar numbers before the main attraction enters from stage right. Too often, this is all about filling the set of a singer who is long past his or her prime. Not tonight. The band plugged in, and Mavis briskly walked on stage as the audience cheered.
Over the course of the set, we heard many old favorites, including Freedom Highway, Respect Yourself, Touch a Hand, Make a Friend, I'll Take You There, and Why? (Am I Treated So Bad). She opened with the Buffalo Springfield's For What It's Worth, and along the way she threw in the Talking Heads' Slippery People, a song I saw her perform with Arcade Fire at the United Center back in 2014. But with Donald Trump in the White House, the line, "God help us. Help us loose our minds. These slippery people. Help us understand." seems frighteningly prescient some 35 years after it was penned.
Mavis also has a sense of humor. Like many of the other artists, she did a little merchandising before closing her set, urging the audience to visit the "Merch" store for CDs and clothing. The "Merch." The "Merch." She then laughingly quipped, "You don't need to shop Macy's. You can shop Mavis."
After leaving the stage, she came back to introduce the band. She didn't just read a list of names, but chose instead to serenade each member with his or her own name, a warm smile, and an often an affectionate touch or nod. She could record those introductions and probably have a number one hit, if we still lives in world where the Top 40 rule the radio.
She also sang the praises of WRXT's Terry Hammert, who corrected Mavis from the audience when Mavis referred to her Live from the Outhouse album--that's Live From the Hot House. Everybody had a good laugh; most of all Mavis. She also repeatedly referred to the night's emcee, Chicago blues maven Tom Marker, whom she affectionately dubbed "Little Tommy Marker."
Mavis Staples is her own person, which explains why long ago she turned down Bob Dylan's marriage proposal. She was the right person to close this year's festival, easily topping any of the many excellent performances that I witnessed, and then some. Before his death, Pops told Mavis, "You've got it. Don't lose it." She obviously listened to her father.
Adding Some Subtle Fills
The Real Deal When It Comes to Patriotism
Rick Holmstrom Taking a Well Deserved Solo
The Reluctant Singer: Jeff Turmes
Ooh . . . Respect Yourself
A Gentle Touch
Loving the Audience
Accepting the Blues Foundation 2017 Award for Soul Female Artist
Photographer's Notes: For the record, I have removed the large screen above the performers' heads in certain photographs, as well as some mikes and water bottles. I am proud to say, this is the first time I successfully used a Bezier curve to do it. Some may be offended by this, but they are my photographs, and I like the performers to look their best.