They Took Us There

Ever since the Great Depression, when Thomas A. Dorsey first brought blues into the church, Chicago has been an incubator for gospel talent: the city has been home at one time or another to the Pilgrim Jubilees, Mahalia Jackson, Robert Anderson, the Soul Stirrers, and Albertina Walker, among others. But the most popular gospel act ever to come out of Chicago may still be the Staple Singers, the remarkable family act led by singer and guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples. Now the group’s story has been sketched out in Chicago’s First Family of Soul, Gospel, and Compassion: The Staple Singers, a documentary produced by WTTW as part of its “Chicago Stories” series. It premieres Monday, February 25, at 7:30 PM on Channel 11, and will be rebroadcast at 11:30 the same night.

Pops Staples left Winona, Mississippi, to work in the Chicago stockyards in the 30s, but by the end of the next decade he’d formed a gospel group with three of his children, who were between the ages of 11 and 15. The Stapleses would become one of the music’s best-selling and most innovative acts, recording for seminal (and secular) labels like Vee-Jay, Riverside, Epic, Stax, and Curtis Mayfield’s Curtom. The group’s mix of down-home harmonies and Pops’s trademark bluesy, vibrato-laden guitar licks set them apart early on, but by the early 60s their music had begun to reflect the civil rights struggle. They gained entree to the pop charts with a couple of message songs, “Why? (Am I Treated So Bad)” and Stephen Stills’s “For What It’s Worth,” in the 60s, and in the 70s they scored eight Top 40 hits, including “Respect Yourself” and the number one “I’ll Take You There.” The group continued to perform through much of the 90s, and both Pops and his youngest daughter, Mavis Staples, carried on solo careers as well. Pops died in December 2000.

The documentary, written and produced by Dave Hoekstra and WTTW’s Jamie Ceaser, is only half an hour long and doesn’t dig very deep, but it works well as a teaser, inviting the viewer to explore the group’s large body of recordings. It’s crammed with nice performance footage, and the talking-head interviews feature lively conversations with the likes of Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, Jesse Jackson, dusties DJ Herb Kent, and soul stars Jerry Butler and Gene Chandler.

Three Live Crews

Three big hip-hop shows this week bring to town a broader cross section of the music than usual:

Mainstream favorite Nas, who plays House of Blues on Wednesday, February 27, has never matched the lyrical depth of his 1994 debut, Illmatic, but for better or worse his war of words with Jay-Z (whose “Takeover” made light of Nas’s failings last year) has launched him back into the spotlight. His recently released fourth album, Stillmatic (Columbia), has already yielded a big hit, “Got Ur Self A….” But on “Ether” Nas fires back with some lame homophobic rips, including this one, aimed at Jay-Z’s Roc-a-Fella label: “Put it together / I rock hos / Ya’ll rock fellas / And now ya’ll trying to take my spot, fellas.” The album’s lack of originality–the miserable “Rule” swipes a big chunk of Tears for Fears’ fey hit “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”–suggests that Nas has plenty of reasons to envy the effortlessly pleasurable hits his rival has been churning out.

California’s nine-member Living Legends crew were relative unknowns when they came together, but the hard-kicking, no-frills beats and nimble wordplay on their 2001 debut album, Almost Famous (Outhouse), might yet warrant their cheeky moniker. They perform at Metro on Sunday, February 24, with LA’s Tha Liks (formerly Tha Alkaholiks)–still rhyming about liquid diets a decade into their career–and schoolteacher-turned-MC Defari.

Big Daddy Kane is a legitimate living legend, even if he hasn’t done much for us lately. Although he doesn’t get the credit that Public Enemy, Rakim, N.W.A, and Boogie Down Productions–all of whom also arrived in the late 80s–regularly reap, last year’s The Very Best of Big Daddy Kane (Rhino) made clear that at his peak Kane had few peers. The collection includes six tracks from his classic 1988 debut, Long Live the Kane, where his bullshit-free delivery was amplified by Marley Marl’s austere, hard funk production. By the early 90s success had blunted his hunger and he began recording duets with Barry White; don’t expect a renewed appetite when he performs on Saturday, February 23, at Isaac Hayes. Fellow 80s vet Slick Rick also performs.


On Friday, February 22, Chicago Filmmakers wraps up a series of screenings that has brought in local musicians to accompany silent and experimental films with a show featuring Califone. It doubles as a record release party for Deceleration One (Perishable), which features music the band recorded last November during an unrelated film presentation at Northwestern University. On the first half–a set of improvisations to film loops by Jeff Economy and Carolyn Faber–the jammy space-rock flourishes can grow tiresome, but the group fares better on the second half, an original score composed for Wladyslaw Starewicz’s 1933 puppet film, The Mascot. Constructed of small but evocative gestures, the music is elliptical, atmospheric, and fragile. For this performance, at 8 PM in Columbia College’s Ferguson Hall, 600 S. Michigan, Califone will reprise the Mascot score and accompany Charles Bryant and Alla Nazimova’s extravagant 1922 version of Salome. Perishable has also recently rereleased Califone’s two out-of-print EPs for other labels on one CD, Sometimes Good Weather Follows Bad People, with a couple bonus tracks from the same period.

Dublin’s Frames–whose best and most recent album, For the Birds, was released by the local Overcoat label in late 2001–were set to play a couple Chicago gigs in December. But days before the tour was to begin, Mic Christopher, a longtime friend and occasional collaborator of Frames front man Glen Hansard, died after falling down a flight of stairs in the Netherlands. The band canceled its U.S. tour to concentrate on raising money to defray Christopher’s funeral expenses, but this week they’ll make up both local gigs: on Saturday, February 23, they open for the New Pornographers at the Abbey Pub, and on Thursday, February 28, they headline at Schubas.

Memorandum, a multimedia work about information overload by the Japanese performance collective Dumb Type, runs from Thursday, February 28, to Sunday, March 3, at the Museum of Contemporary Art; like the group’s last MCA show, OR, it features the breathtaking digital sound design of Ryoji Ikeda. His music for the piece is available on the Japanese label CCI Recordings; its shuffle of low-end throb, industrial hum, percussive white noise, melodic repetition, and spoken word holds up on its own, but if OR was any indication, it will yield new depths when integrated into Dumb Type’s sensory assault.