Mavis Staples and Dr. John at Celebrity Theatre 6-16-11

Mavis Staples and Dr. John
Celebrity Theatre
Thursday, June 16

"Joyful noise." That's how Mavis Staples described what her and her band create onstage. It's an apt characterization, one that is appropriately loaded with gospel history, and one that connotes how the 71-year-old singer approaches performing. It can be summed up by another quote from Ms. Staples -- "Are you all having fun? Mavis is goin' to have fun."

Dr. John, also known as Mac Rebennack, had fun, too. The 70-year-old singer brought a different flavor than Staples, favoring a more mysterious, New Orleans-soaked vibe. I profiled how the two musicians have always been very different in this week's print issue, but after seeing them last night, my first time seeing both performers, I can't state enough how wonderful a pairing the two made.

Taking the stage to the announcement, "Please welcome Dr. Mavis Staples," the woman marched onstage to applause. I was surprised that Mavis would play first, but both artists acted as headliners, playing equal-length sets.

The Staples Band was remarkably stripped down. Guitarist Rick Holmstrom led the band through Mavis' catalog, often illustrating why Mavis calls him "Pops Jr.," as he finger-picked out twangy blues licks and understated melodies. Staples had a trio of backup singers with her, who added beautiful harmonies to the bass/drums/guitar trio and Mavis' still-unbelievably-impressive voice.

Staples seemed sick, coughing between songs, but you would never know it from her vocals on songs like the opener, "Wonderful Savior," which found her and her backing band performing the gospel standard a cappella

Staples tended toward material from last year's Grammy-winning album You Are Not Alone, (produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy), giving stirring readings to the Creedence Clearwater Revival song "Wrote a Song for Everyone," offering a funky take on "Creep Along Moses," bringing a hush to the crowd with the title track, and getting down on the raucous "Only the Lord Knows."

But it was songs from her illustrious past that truly made the night feel monumental. I never imagined I would have the pleasure of hearing Staples sing "The Weight," which she famously performed with The Band in Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz. She made reference to the concert film, stating how great it was to be a part of the filming. "The Band, y'all," she cheered.

She sang "Freedom Highway," one of the defining songs of the Civil Rights movement, noting that her father wrote it for "The Big March" in 1962. "We're going to keep marching," she cried. "Until Dr. King's dream is realized." The crowd cheered, and she added, "Everything is going to be alright. It is better now. It's better." 

"I get to acting ugly sometimes," she joked, "But when the spirit moves you, you move!" Staples took a brief break, while Holmstrom, bassist Jeff Turmes, and drummer Stephen Hodges (Tom Waits, Mike Watt, Jonathan Richman) performed two instrumental songs. It gave Mavis a chance to catch her breath, but she could hardly sit still, clapping along and dancing in her seat to the music.

She returned to the mic for "I Belong to the Band," which got the crowd on its feet, before wrapping up with The Staples Singers hit "I'll Take You There." The crowd called back every word. Staples' energy was boundless, and the crowd responded by dancing, cheering and clapping. At 71, she still has command of her fans, and I can think of no one more qualified to hold sway over a room of people.  

Taking the stage in a purple suit and leaning on a feather covered walking stick, recent Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductee Dr. John's set was lighter on banter than Mavis', but still plenty funky.

Fresh off his collaborations with The Meters, Allen Toussaint, and The Black Keys at Bonnaroo -- it's rumored John is working on an album with the Keys -- Mac Rebennack simply did what he does best: twinkle the piano, play fuzzy lead riffs on the organ, croon with his signature rasp, and generally appear to be the coolest guy in the world.

"Feel Good Music," from his latest record, Tribal, found John in good form. Armed with drummer Shannon "The King of Treme" Powell, guitarist John Fohl, and bassist/vocalist David Barard, he also explored songs from his creepy, voodoo inspired Night Tripper days, like "I Walk on Guilded Splinters," my favorite song of his set.

Rebennack tapped his foot wildly as the set went on, alternating between organ and piano, sometimes playing both. He even strapped on a guitar for "One Dirty Woman," something not particularly common.

John and band gave "Saints" another reading, but they cast it in a different light, playing the song in a minor key and giving it an eerie, strange feeling, like maybe you wouldn't want the saints to go marching in to your house.

The band finished with "Lay My Burden Down," dashing my hopes that Mavis would emerge to join John for a song. The band joined in though, singing along. Barard had an incredible voices, almost as good as his bass playing, which anchored the band. I usually hate slap bass, but when you hear it done right, it's hard to deny.

As John shuffled off, the crowd cheered for more. He obliged, returning to do one of his signature Creole numbers, "Big Chief." It's twinkling piano line was too much for most people to take sitting down, and the crowd hopped up and danced.

With both artists well past the "sell-by date" that so often gets applied to modern pop stars, it was incredible to be a part of a night of music that wasn't bound by decades or genre. When you boil it all down, Mavis Staples and Dr. John play soul music, and truly great soul music feels universal.

Set List:

Mavis Staples:

"Wonderful Savior"
"Wrote a Song For Everyone"
"Creep Along Moses"
"The Weight"
"You Are Not Alone"
"Freedom Highway"
"Losing You"
"Only the Lord Knows"
"When the Saints Go Marching In"
"I Belong to the Band"
"I'll Take You There"

Dr. John:

"Mos Scocious"
"Saturday Night Fish Fry"
"Old Wine in New Bottles"
"I Walk on Guilded Splinters"
"Right Place, Wrong Time"
"One Dirty Woman"
"Accentuate the Positive"
"Feel Good Music"
"Wang Dang Doodle"
"Makin' Whoopee"
"When the Saints Go Marching In"
"Lay My Burden Down"


"Big Chief"

Critic's Notebook

Last Night:
Mavis Staples and Dr. John at Celebrity Theatre

The Crowd: Roots music fans, old school soulsters, gospel fans. The only problem with the entire show is that the hall wasn't sold out. It makes little sense to me.

Personal Bias: This is the second time "Losing You" has made me misty at a live show in the past few weeks.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.