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LIVE REVIEW -- Mavis Staples, JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound


Mavis Staples with

JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound

February 29, 2012

Classic Cinemas Tivoli Theater, Downers Grove, IL

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Mavis Staples sings

By Linda Cain

Photos: Dianne Bruce Dunklau

On a stormy Wednesday night in the western suburbs, Mavis Staples came onstage to an adoring, sold-out crowd of 1,000 and announced her mission statement for the night: “We come to bring joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations!”  The heralded singer, known for her deep, powerful, soulful vocals, as well as her civil rights activism, proceeded to do just that.

Chicago’s Staple Singers family band, led by the late Pops Staples, was known around the world for its gospel and civil rights themed music.  The group marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and provided the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. When the Staples were signed to Stax Records in 1968, the result was crossover secular hit records with inspirational themes such as “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself.”

Since then, as a nation, we’ve come a long way in the quest for equality; however Mavis Staples reminded the audience at the Tivoli Theater in suburban Downers Grove to be ever vigilant and to keep from backsliding towards the injustices of the past. She may have been preaching to the choir, as the sold-out audience was as fired up to see Mavis as she was to sing to them. Nonetheless, this reporter, having seen the celebrated, Grammy-winning artist countless times, observed that on this particular night the ebullient Mavis was especially fervent in her delivery of topical songs, given today’s political, social and economic climate. And she was just as charming, warm and down-home as ever.

With an outstanding three-piece band and three backup singers behind her, Mavis opened with the traditional spiritual “Wonderful Savior,” sung a cappella, with five-part harmony and hand clapping. The gorgeous, beautifully restored Tivoli Theater, built in 1928 with attention to acoustic performances, was the perfect setting (outside of a church) to hear these pristine voices.

The second song was another traditional spiritual, “Creep Along Moses”; it was highlighted by the trio of backing singers (Yvonne Staples, Donny Gerrard and Vickie Randle) whose soaring, majestic voices rose to the heavens on the chorus. The audience was soon enraptured, cheering and clapping its approval.

Mavis Staples backup singers

The next two songs were covers of secular hits, performed with a gospel feel. Mavis’ righteous cover of John Fogerty’s “Wrote A Song For Everyone” featured lead guitarist Rick Holmstrom playing a Creedence influenced guitar solo on his vintage B&W Telecaster.

Mavis and her band then gave tribute to The Band, with whom she performed in the acclaimed Martin Scorsese concert film The Last Waltz, with a thumping version of “The Weight.” Her raspy, emotional vocals gave extra weight (pardon the pun) to the lyrics, as Mavis and the backup singers traded verses, along with the bass player Jeff Turmes. Each talented singer gave it their all while soloing, much to the crowd’s approval. For the final chorus, Mavis belted out “put the load,” repeating it five times for effect, before ending with “on me.”  The audience stood and applauded in response.

All Mavis had to do next was tell the crowd, “you are not alone,” and they cheered in anticipation of the title track of her Grammy winning CD, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy who also penned the song. Mavis sang out the tune’s uplifting message, complete with hand gestures and movements that saw her reaching out to the audience, in hopes of touching their hearts and souls.

Mavis Staples hold out hand

Mavis and band continued the message as Holmstrom kicked off the next song with his Pops Staples’ inspired, tremolo-drenched guitar ringing out on “Freedom’s Highway.” Again Mavis, like a preacher in the pulpit, sermonized the song’s message, shouting to her “congregation”: “I WONT turn around” repeating it adamantly, over and over, stomping about the stage and ending with a soul scream. She was really stoked now!

She kept it going, singing and talking as the band vamped behind her and she turned into a tent show preacher. “My mind is made up! I’ve come too far to turn back now. I’m determined to go on. I’m still on that highway. I’m gonna stay on it until Dr. King’s dream is realized!”  She then talked about how her father first wrote the marching song for the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marches in 1965.

At this point, the band exited the stage leaving only Mavis and guitarist Holmstrom to calm down and shift gears for a country ballad “(I’ll Never Get Over) Losing You,” by Randy Newman.  The number displayed another side of Mavis who, when singing gently, employed her throaty voice to pack an emotional wallop as she sang about lost love with broken-hearted regret pouring from her vocals.

Mavis Staples looks down

The band returned for an upbeat patriotic anthem, “This Is My Country,” with a message that mirrored Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”  Mavis stopped singing to again testify about today’s troubled times: foreclosures, unemployment and “disrespect to our President.”

Without saying its name, she criticized the Tea Party and its slogans about “taking back our country.”  She asked, “They want to take us back? To where? The Fifties and Sixties?”  She defiantly declared: “Well, I ain’t  NEVER going back to the back of the bus!”  The audience broke into applause and Mavis really got worked up as she ended the song, leaving no doubt about her patriotic desires for equality.

It was time to go back to church, as Mavis and the band performed a rousing medley of the traditional “Too Close (To Heaven To Turn Around)” joined with “On My Way To Heaven” (a Pops Staples’ song). Their harmonic voices sounded heavenly, indeed.

“We’re Gonna Make It,” written by Chicago’s Gene “Daddy G” Barge, was performed as a duet with Mavis and singer Donny Gerrard. It began as an easy-going Sam Cooke style R&B song; the band then sped up the tempo for some rapid-fire hand clappin’ as Holmstrom shredded on his rhythm guitar. The Band chugged away like a runaway train as the crowd cheered and gave a standing ovation.

Mavis Staples & Rick Holmstrom

Mavis sat down to the side of the stage, while the musicians -- Holmstrom on guitar, Stephen Hodges on drums and Turmes on bass and guitar -- played a two song set of retro-styled instrumentals. Mavis played cheerleader while seated, urging the fans to clap along.

Mavis rejoined the band, starting the next song a cappella, with only hand claps and drums; then all joined in on “(Hallelujah) I Belong To The Band” by Rev. Gary Davis. One young woman, in a black sequined top, felt the spirit and danced across the path in front of the stage and back again.

Mavis introduced the final song as a trip down memory lane and kicked off “I’ll Take You There,” the Staple Singers’ 1971. Mavis grooved and growled along with the band, as she did on the record, inviting the crowd to sing along.  As the audience sang, Mavis exited, waving, but soon returned to take a final bow to a deafening roar of applause.

JC Brooks

JC Brooks & the Uptown Sound opened the show at 7 p.m. for an hour long set, and proved to be a delightful, well-matched pairing with Mavis Staples and her band. Both acts play songs with a message, set to R&B, soul, gospel and rock music. Led by charismatic frontman JC Brooks, who was a nonstop man in motion, the young quintet entertained and engaged the patrons with deft musical chops, versatility, showmanship, outstanding vocals and great original material.

With a strong, clear voice that ranged from falsetto to baritone, sometimes in the same song, Brooks delivered catchy songs in a myriad of styles that kept the crowd’s attention. The animated frontman employed his experience in the theater by moving about the stage, gesturing, emoting, screaming , dancing and acting out the theme of each song. Brooks is clearly schooled in old school soul and at times seemed to channel artists like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Al Green and James Brown, as did his skilled bandmates: Andy Rosenstein on keyboards, guitarist Billy Bungeroth, bassist Ben Taylor and drummer Kevin Marks. Throw in some Prince and Fine Young Cannibals, and you get the picture.

JC Brooks

Brooks and Uptown Sound, however, are no one-trick pony; they also can rock, as evidenced by their punchy cover of Wilco’s “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” The song is receiving heavy rotation on WXRT radio, which sponsored the concert.  DJ Tom “Mavis’ Number One Fan” Marker served as emcee.

It’s no wonder that JC Brooks and company were chosen to open for both Robert Plant at Ravinia and Fitz & The Tantrums at The Metro last year. They are currently performing at multiple showcases in Austin at S x SW. The Chicago band will most likely be “discovered” by a global audience there and move onto well-deserved career advancement.

You can read a 2011 Chicago Blues Guide interview with JC Brooks, who formed the band via Craigslist. If you are interested in pursuing singing like Brooks, you can research hiring a vocal coach at

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