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LIVE REVIEW -- Mavis Staples & Booker T. & the MG's


Mavis Staples and Booker T. & the MG’s

Harris Theater at Millennium Park

Chicago, IL

November 1, 2008


Stax soul summit meets in Chicago 40 years later for historic reunion to benefit Old Town School of Folk Music

By Linda Cain

Photos by: Jennifer Wheeler

Stax Records in Memphis was known as Soulsville, U.S.A.  Artists from all over the country traveled there to infuse their recordings with soul magic which emanated from the studio housed in a converted movie theater. The heart and soul of the Stax sound was Booker T. and the MGs, an integrated group of musicians who served as the house band that backed up endless hits in the ‘60s by singers like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Rufus Thomas, Albert King and the Staple Singers. The quartet had plenty of all-instrumental hits themselves, including originals “Green Onions,” “Soul-Limbo,” and “Time Is Tight,” plus creative covers of “Mrs. Robinson” and “Groovin’.” The group can claim credit for over 600 recordings!

Chicago’s Staples family band was known for its gospel and civil rights music. Led by guitarist Pops Staples, daughter Mavis sang lead vocals in her powerful, husky voice. The Staples possessed plenty of their own high wattage gospel and soul power but when they signed to Stax Records in 1968, they became part of the Memphis musical family. The result was crossover secular hits with inspirational themes such as “I’ll Take You There,” and “Respect Yourself”.

While all this great music was happening, there was much social unrest with civil rights and Vietnam War protests, especially in 1968 when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy were assassinated. (Original MG drummer Alan Jackson, Jr. was a murder victim 1975). Dr. King was killed in a Memphis motel not far from Stax headquarters and the entire neighborhood erupted in violence and race riots, which eventually led to the demise of the record label.

Exactly 40 years later, just three days before the historic election of November 4, 2008, seemed a very appropriate time for these artists to reunite in a concert to benefit the Old Town School of Folk Music, which is now in its 51st year.  The show was dedicated to philanthropist Marjorie Craig Benton, and unexpectedly it also became a tribute to writer/activist Studs Terkel, an early supporter of the Old Town School, who had passed away at age 96 the day before.

A finer tribute would be hard to find.

Booker T. & the MG’s 80-minute opening set was exhilarating. Although they performed only nine songs, each lengthy instrumental number was an epic musical journey that swept the audience along for the ride.


            Keyboardist Booker T. Jones’ soaring, swirling solos on the Hammond B-3 were answered by Steve Cropper’s lightning flash guitar riffs.  The relentlessly upbeat and funky rhythm section of bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn and drummer/percussionist Steve Potts got everybody in the Stax groove. Although the band created this music over 40 years ago, it sounded fresh and vibrant. In spite of the players having aged four decades, their chops were sharp as ever.

With jam bands being all the rage at festivals these days, a case could be made for Booker T. & the MGs to be hailed as one of the first jam bands. In fact, their hit records were created from improvising in the studio and playing vamps for other artists.

On stage at the Harris Theater, the quartet was not content to play jukebox versions of their music, either.

They opened with a funky instrumental number that turned out to be a cover of Bob Dylan’s haunting, gospel-flavored “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”  Booker T. & the MG’s creative cover of “Summertime” also strayed from the classic version. Thankfully Booker announced the song titles after each number. Both songs were a testament to the band’s ability to reconstruct a piece of music and turn it into their own flavorful Memphis soul stew.

However, when the band played its self-penned hits, the songs were instantly recognizable from the first notes. While they didn’t stray too far from the original versions, they did extend the tunes into groovin’ jams with incredible solos. Their second number, “Melting Pot” was a good example of the band’s ability to take flight and soar above its usual R&B formula.


 “Boogaloo” was go-go style dance number, while 1968’s “Soul-Limbo”, with its cowbell and Caribbean percussion, took everyone island hopping.

The band’s Top Ten hit “Hip Hug-Her” was a rhythmic warm-up for its indelible Number One hit “Green Onions” that drew applause and a standing ovation. They kept the momentum going with a spaghetti western musical shootout, a rip-roaring version of “Hang “Em High” that outshone the original. The final number was an epic version of “Time Is Tight,” which started out as a slow and dreamy interplay between Duck Dunn and Booker T.  Suddenly Duck pointed to Potts, who kicked in on drums, and the MGs launched into the song’s tight groove. The audience stood and clapped, for what they thought was the finale, but Booker kept it going with a majestic B-3 solo. It wasn’t the last we would see of Mr. Jones.

Booker T. & the MG’s were a tough act to follow, and who but Mavis Staples and her stellar new trio could even try?

Marvelous Mavis warmed up the crowd with a socially conscious message about voting  and then launched into an updated version of ‘60s protest song “For What It’s Worth.”  Bringing the gospel spirit to the Harris Theater was her goal. “We’ve come to bring you joy, happiness, inspiration and good vibrations,” she said with a throaty laugh. And she did just that with help from her new trio – guitarist Rick Holmstrom, bassist/guitarist Jeff Turmes and Stephen Hodges on drums/percussion.


Holmstrom is a well-known guitarist in blues and roots music, who also dabbles in modern digital sampling.  Whoever thought to match this trio up with Mavis knew what they were doing. Pops Staples’ tremolo-echo guitar style has influenced roots musicians for decades. For Mavis’ last CD of protest songs We’’ll Never Turn Back, Ry Cooder played Pops’ stand-in. This time bandleader Holmstrom filled the bill admirably with his eerily atmospheric guitar style, which has been described as “Link Wray meets Gatemouth Brown.”  The Holmstrom trio also backed up Mavis on her newly released (on November 4) CD Mavis Staples Live: Hope at The Hideout, recorded in a funky Chicago bar last summer.

At age 69 Mavis still performs with an energy and enthusiasm that is contagious. She sings in a deep, gravelly voice that growls and shouts about fighting injustice and marching for freedom.  It is the voice of experience, from a person who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  “Pops always said if Dr. King can preach it, we can sing it,” she recalled. That is exactly what the Staples family did. It’s a legacy that Mavis is carrying on today and a struggle which saw victory on November 4, 2008. (Of course no one knew this the day of the concert).

It seems hard to imagine that 40 years ago there were signs on public washrooms, drinking fountains and restaurants that read “For Colored Only.”  Mavis reminded us of this injustice in “Way Down in Mississippi.”  She sang Dr. King’s favorite Staples protest song “Why Am I Treated So Bad?” on which she chanted and moaned. For “Eyes on the Prize” she beseeched us to “hold on” and to look to the future. We only had to wait three days, as it turned out.

In Mavis’ hands, these historic songs born from bad times were presented in a positive, hopeful light, rather than a bitter saga, to show us how far we’ve come and to help keep us on the right track.

She brought the crowd to church with “Wade in the Water,” a Mahalia Jackson spiritual that really got her in the spirit, strutting all over the stage. The traditional “This Little Light” was given an irresistible funky groove, courtesy of the trio.

            For the poignant “Waiting For My Child (To Come Home),” which she dedicated to all military families, Mavis put down the mic and belted out the sad lyrics with her big voice that rose to the rafters.

Mavis left the stage after a 40 minute set, while her trio fired off several smokin’ instrumentals. She returned for a two-song encore of the protest marching song “Freedom Highway” followed by the Staples’ secular hit, “I’ll Take You There.”

            She asked for some help from the audience since her backup singers were down with the flu. Much to Mavis’ (and everyone’s) surprise, Booker T. Jones came to the rescue and started singing “I’ll Take You There.” Who knew that this famous instrumentalist had such a great voice?  It was a funny and tender moment to see the very tall Mr. Jones towering over Ms. Staples as they attempted to share custody of the mic.


 It was also a moment in musical history that foreshadowed the historic world event that would occur in just three days -- the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, who would give his acceptance speech at a rally in Grant Park just down the street from the Harris Theater. As Mavis put it, “Dr. King is smiling down on us here in America.”

Copyright 2008: Chicago Blues Guide


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