Soul and gospel legend Mavis Staples opened her set on Friday at the Pitchfork Music Festival with an Alfred Hitchcock-esque “Good evening,” then proclaimed that she came to bring “joy, happiness, inspiration, and some positive vibrations.”
“We want you to feel good,” she said. “I don’t know for how long, but just so you feel good while we’re here.”
For the next hour, Staples performed tracks largely from her latest album, We Get By, released by Anti- in May, a couple months before she turned 80. Fronting a band that included two backup singers (who sounded like a cross between a Chicago gospel group and 60s club crooners) and a guitarist and bassist (whose styles drew on the 1930s, ’50s, and ’70s), Staples didn’t seem to feel the heat, the humidity, or her age—her voice was just as strong, raspy, and spiritual as ever.
While waiting for Staples to begin, Vocalo morning host Jill Hopkins had talked to me in the crowd. “Protect her at all cost,” she said. “I hope there’s, like, a thousand fans pointing at her.”
Hopkins has played in bands that have covered Staples’s music, so she knows it well. “I want that hot summer day where everybody’s upset about the government and the way that the world is,” she said, “and she comes out and just sings protest music in the way that only she can and somehow soothes and activates people at the same time.”
The stage lights glowed in bright, warm colors and the audience filled the air with applause during “Take Us Back,” the opening track of 2016’s Livin’ on a High Note: “I got help from all the people who love me,” Staples sang.
As she closed “Build a Bridge,” from the 2017 Jeff Tweedy collaboration If All I Was Was Black, Staples raised her fist and made a joke she kept returning to throughout her set: “We got orange face up in the office. I used to like oranges,” she said, igniting thunderous approval and laughter every time. “I believe Imma run for president. Y’all vote for me? Vote for Mavis!”
Between “Change” from We Get By and a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s 1966 classic “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound),” Staples decided the audience’s singing was good enough for them to be her band.
“We’re gonna make us a record, yes indeed!” she said. “It’s gon’ be called the Chicago a Cappella & Them Staple Chillen.”
Staples is best known as the lead vocalist of the Staple Singers, the gospel-soul revolutionaries who championed the civil rights movement under the meticulous guidance of father Roebuck “Pops” Staples. The group’s music crossed racial and socioeconomic boundaries, knitting a socially conscious and all-loving fabric with the sound of classic singles “Respect Yourself,” “Let’s Do It Again” and “I’ll Take You There.”
Pitchfork doesn’t typically address spirituality explicitly, instead leaving festgoers to engage with the music on those terms only if they choose to do so individually. But Staples’s set was different: the feel-good music she’d inherited from her father, which matched blues chords with gospel melodies to unprecedentedly harmonious effect, was just as inspiring as it would’ve been in a church.
Kaileigh Robinson, 26, and Maggie Courter, 23, were looking to feel just that during Staples’s performance.
“There’s that sound that kind of reminds me of being in church and hearing that woman in church blow,” Robinson said. “I might not go to church, but the sound of church is something that still resonates with me—that still gives me that fellowship with others.”
Courter concurred. “Her voice has such a depth and presence, and I think that I’m hoping to feel some of that spirit that religious music kind of invokes . . . bringing people together.”
In most years, the closest Pitchfork gets to gospel is booking the Jesus Lizard (from 2009) or Holy Ghost! (from 2016). But as the festival circuit rapidly expands and the demand for diversity grows louder, Pitchfork’s musical and demographic direction has subtly changed.
Jam bands and jazz ensembles have returned to the festival’s roster, including the Sun Ra Arkestra and Kamasi Washington (both in 2016) and George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic (in 2017). It’s also booking singers who got started in or are inspired by gospel, such as Jamila Woods (in 2017) and Raphael Saadiq and Lauryn Hill (both in 2018). But Mavis Staples is the first properly gospel artist to perform at the festival.
This year headliners the Isley Brothers, who started in gospel and doo-wop, celebrate the 60th anniversary of their first hit on Saturday night. The widening sonic and social territory covered by the Pitchfork festival may reflect gospel and R&B’s continued mutual influence, or the way that both genres’ sampling practices have connected generations via an encyclopedic knowledge base. This is all especially visible in the current era of crossover gospel artists such as Kirk Franklin, who joined Chance the Rapper onstage at Pitchfork in 2015.
This crossover also manifests itself in Chicago’s extensive history of live gospel and blues performance. The Chicago Gospel Music Festival just reached its 34th iteration in June, with headliners Hezekiah Walker and Anthony Brown & Group Therapy, both of whom are known for songs that join megachoirs with hip-hop and R&B sounds. Staples herself has performed with her sisters and father at the Chicago Blues Festival in 1986 and ’93, and in 2011 she joined Jeff Tweedy at Lollapalooza in support of their 2010 joint album, You Are Not Alone.
What’s most encouraging about Staples’s presence at Pitchfork is that even today, more than 50 years after the civil rights movement, she can still use her musical versatility, crossover appeal, and charismatic spirit to break down boundaries and bring together generations.
Toward the back of the crowd, a group of dancers wore warm, coordinated patterns, among them Devon Middleton, 29—his yellow shorts were printed with the words “acceptance,” “unity” and “love.”
“She reminded me of somebody I know,” said Middleton’s friend Asia Martin, 25. “She’s very direct, too, when she sings. And the messages she says, it was almost like a spiritual thing, where she would say something and everybody’s like ‘Aah! Yeah!’ every time.”
“And the fact that she’s in the shape she’s in vocally and physically and is able to play a show for that long is a testament to her work ethic and her passion,” said Tori Wayne, 26.
Staples exited the stage like a matriarch at a family reunion, leaving the audience with words of wisdom and a call to action: her backup singers repeated the hook “work to do,” from the We Get By song “No Time for Cryin’.”
“It felt like she could lead us into the streets,” said Max Thomas, 25. “Like she could create change fully, and she showed how everybody needs to just hold themselves accountable in terms of making that change in any space.” v