Various Artists: Mavis Staples — I’ll Take You There: An All-Star Concert Celebration

Various Artists
Mavis Staples — I’ll Take You There: An All-Star Concert Celebration
(Blackbird Presents)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Wherever Mavis Staples goes, church follows. So even if names like Grace Potter, Ryan Bingham, Michael McDonald and Widespread Panic don’t exactly scream gospel, they add grace and confident energy on this spiritually uplifting tribute to one of the genre’s true crossover icons.

These “all-star celebrations” and the CD/DVDs that inevitably follow have provided musical director Don Was an outlet for his eclectic talented friends and associates since 2012’s Johnny Cash themed gig kicked things off. And even if some of the usual suspects such as Emmylou Harris, the late Gregg Allman (both the focus of previous Was-led concerts), Buddy Miller and veteran backing keyboardist Matthew Rollings make this seem as though he’s trotting out his tried and true roots music club members, Was brings artists like Ryan Bingham, Bonnie Raitt, Otis Clay, Glen Hansard, Aaron Neville and the frontman and woman of the Arcade Fire in for this generally terrific celebration of all things Mavis.

The show, recorded at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater Nov.19, 2014 commemorated Staples’ 75th birthday (she’s 77 now), came on the heels of two successful Jeff Tweedy produced albums. Not surprisingly, Tweedy appears to perform the title track of 2010’s You Are Not Alone. It’s one of 21 songs on the double CD (the DVD adds two more) in a concert that reflects all the exuberance, positivity and vibrancy you’d expect from Staples who has exuded those tendencies over the course of her 65 and counting year career (she started singing professionally with her Staple Singers family in 1950, when she was just 11).

Although not a songwriter herself, Staples is a master interpreter, owning much of the material she sings. That makes this a set of covers of covers. They run the gamut from fairly recent material like Emmylou Harris’ sparkling take on the Nick Lowe penned “Far Celestial Shore” to Staples Singers’ era classics such as a rousing “Freedom Highway” from Michael McDonald, Widespread Panic’s animated version of Pops Staples’ “Hope in a Hopeless World” and a closing, all-in “The Weight,” first sung by the Staples in 1968 and famously revived in The Last Waltz, which connect on every level.

Each contributor from Buddy Miller to Keb’ Mo’, (“Heavy Makes You Happy”), Joan Osborne (who unearths the rarity “You’re Driving Me [To the Arms of a Stranger”]), Taj Mahal and even Win Butler and Regine Chassagne from Arcade Fire (tackling Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” included on the final Staples Singers’ album) turns in stirring performances. Mavis and Aaron Neville’s duet on “Respect Yourself” is especially inspired as is Grace Potter, ensconced behind her organ for a sizzling “Grandma’s Hands.” The unplugged “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Allman, Raitt, Mahal, Neville and Mavis trading vocals will send shivers down any spine. An expanded 13-piece band with three horns and the McCrary Sisters backing vocal trio is tight and impressively low on flash. Interestingly, these songs, most brimming with messages of civil rights, mutual respect and togetherness feel almost more pertinent after 2016’s election than when this was recorded.

Typical of these musical homages, producer Keith Wortman and musical director Was invite multi-generational roots acts to both confirm the artist’s enduring, cross-genre influence and help attract a larger (i.e, younger) audience. The DVD includes sharply edited and heartfelt testimonials from the artists on what makes Mavis so special.

The omission of anything from either of Staples’ two Prince produced albums seems like either an oversight or due to legal issues. But you won’t notice as Staples is shown rejoicing in the festivities from her seat of honor on the professionally shot DVD and joins for the last half hour, closing out a joyous, timeless concert guaranteed to put a smile on the face of the most secular listener.