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Photos by Julia LeConte
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MAVIS STAPLES & DR. JOHN as part of the TORONTO JAZZ FESTIVAL at Nathan Phillips Square, Saturday, June 22. Rating: NNNN
On Saturday night, 73-year-old gospel goddess Mavis Staples reminded Toronto that a special performer can own a stage from the get-go, without bells, whistles, costumes or antics.
Maybe that's the confidence 60 years of performing, a friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. and a one-time marriage proposal from Bob Dylan earns you.
Staples owned Nathan Phillips Square's Toronto Jazz Fest stage from the moment she emerged singing Can You Get To That and Far Celestial Shores from her new record, One True Vine. Dr. John, the co-billed blues singer-songwriter and guitarist got involved on The Weight (Take A Load Off Annie), as did her backup singers, each taking turns belting verses on the classic The Band song.
Staples worked the stage the way a bluesman in her native Chicago might work a local club, charming the audience, getting in the faces of her musicians, freestyling in her powerful, imperfect raspy growl. She scatted and screeched intermittently, and kept up when song tempos accelerated to rollicking finale.
When she spoke, the crowd was so attentive you could hear her earrings bangling between words. As soft electric guitar set a mood, she talked about the Selma to Montgomery march of 1965, then followed it with Dr. King's favourite Staples Singers song, Why Am I Treated So Bad. It ended with perfect gospel harmonies - the first of two occasions that choked me up (the second came when she belted I Like The Things About Me, an anthem her father wrote about celebrating his African American physical features). Maybe it was the two hours of sleep I was running on, or maybe Staples is just that inspiring. (Dr. King and Dylan thought so, anyway.)
Her bandmates were great, especially Rick Holmstrom on electric guitar, who plucked out inspiring instrumentals while Staples took a ten-minute break toward the end.
Staples's CD was on sale at the show (a few days earlier than it's available to the general public). "Take me home wit ya!" she said. If only we could.