Mavis Staples and Booker T. & the MG’s
Harris Theater at Millennium Park
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
was go-go style dance number, while 1968’s “Soul-Limbo”, with
its cowbell and Caribbean percussion, took everyone island
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
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)
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
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
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