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Mavis Staples at Symphony Center Review- The Kennedy Center Honoree is "Livin' on a High Note"

By Debra Davy

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 Legendary singer Mavis Staples with her backup band, Rick Holstrom, music director, guitar and vocals; Stephen Hodges, drums and percussion; and Jeff Turmes, bass, guitar and vocals; with lead and backing vocalists Vicki Randle and Donny Gerrard, fronted by special guests Phil Cook and the Guitarheels put on a rollicking good concert Friday night, February 17 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave, as part of the Symphony Center Presents Special Concert series.

The one and only Mavis Staples


Phil Cook, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and vocalist, who has worked with a number of well-known musical artists, and the Guitarheels, (James Wallace on keyboards, Brevan Hampden, percussion, Michael Libramento, bass, and Matt McCaughan, drums) were enthusiastic and talented openers, whose music was reminiscent of CCR, the Eagles, and a touch of the Grateful Dead. It was bluesy rock and roll with fine rhythm, balance and verve. There was no hint of audience impatience waiting for Mavis Staples. Nonetheless, when her band members and side vocalists emerged, the crowd cheered strongly and a palpable excitement filled Symphony Center.

Mavis Staples, radiating joy

 Showing little signs of her 77 years and characteristically bantering with the audience, shaking hands and strutting her stuff, Staples’s show consisted both of old standards as well as songs off her most recent album, “Livin’ on a High Note”, about which she told the crowd, “I told the songwriters I was looking for joyful songs”.

 She spoke often of her family, and uttered words of encouragement and support for love and friendship in these troubled times. She also dedicated two of her songs to family members, an unidentified cousin in the audience, whom she teased, and her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, who, she said “Marched from Selma to Montgomery”, Alabama. “I’m a living witness”, she exclaimed. Phil Cook had earlier dedicated a song he’d written to Cleotha, Mavis’ sister.

Mavis Staples

 Staples began singing with her family’s group, The Staple Singers, at the age of 11, in 1950. They evolved from extremely popular gospel singers “to become the most spectacular and influential spirituality-based group in America”. The artist was named a Kennedy Center honoree in 2016 for her lifetime contribution to American culture.


Chicago's beloved Mavis Staples

Referring to herself as “The Black Spider”, mentioning her recent double knee surgery, Staples was in top form. Nothing could dim her enthusiasm or that of the audience, even the unfortunate acoustics at Symphony Center; despite the stage being draped in black bunting, the “reverb” and soundboard effects could not quite transmit electronic music the way it is supposed to sound. Nonetheless, Rick Holstrom’s fabulous guitar playing with Jeff Turmes’ in a tight lead on bass coupled with the pure “out-of-the-earth” richness of Staples’ famous voice had the audience on their feet dancing and singing along to such crowd pleasers as ”Respect Yourself”, “The Freedom Highway”, “One Love”, “We’re Gonna Make It”, “Slippery People”, ”What you Gonna Do When Death Comes Creeping in Your Room”, “Touch a Hand Make a Friend”, “I’ll Take you There”, and “Stop Children What’s That Sound” (For What it’s Worth”).  Deacon Donny Gerard blended in an outstanding way with Vicki Randle on backup vocals; Randle also provided fine percussive notes to add to the hot sounds of Stephen Hodges, a super rhythmist.

2016 Kennedy Center Honoree Mavis Staples

The level of enthusiasm and enjoyment was very high during the 2+ hours of this joyous concert, which ended in long cheers and standing ovations.

For information and tickets to all the great concerts at Symphony Center, go to www.cso.org

 All photos by Chris Strong

Published on Feb 20, 2017

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