Ms. Lauryn Hill. Brian Wilson. Chance the Rapper. Over the years, Pitchfork Music Festival has played host to a number of artists dubbed the voice of their generation. Mavis Staples, however, resides in a league of her own as an oracle of humanity. Presented with compelling storytelling, boundless talent and an effervescent ora, the Chicago legend’s message of freedom and love continues to transcend the constructed concepts of time.
During Staples’ Friday, July 19 Red Stage set at the 14th annual Pitchfork Festival – held at Chicago’s Union Park – the gospel singer didn’t just take fans to church, she converted the event’s grounds into a shrine of positivity in the face of adversity, while emphasizing the importance of speaking truth to power. With her supporting back-up band and singers on stage, Staples glided to the mic – smiling and waving to fans camped out in the blazing sun – starting her set with The Staple Singers’ classic, “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).”
“Chicago wasn’t always easy/But love made the Windy City breezy,” Staples sang with vocal perfection amid a chorus of cheers during “Take Us Back” before adding a bit of playful scat to her cover of “Slippery People,” the Talking Heads’ song of religious duality which, from Staples, sounded more like a gospel affirmation.
“Chicago, good day, y’all,” Staples said addressing the crowd for the first time. “We’re gonna have a time out here. I can tell. You all want to have a good time, don’t you?”
Calling the city the home of down-home blues – and referencing the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters – Staples introduced her song of solutions, “Build a Bridge.” She characterized the aim of her music saying, “We’ve come here to bring you joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations.”
The good vibrations continued with a cover of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” “Who Told You That” and “We Get By,” the latter of which is the title track of Staples’ 2019 Ben Harper-produced album, but it was “Freedom Highway” that truly stood out with its poignant message and powerful performance. Now, at 80-years-old, Staples sang the song with the same urgency as she did with The Staple Singers back in 1965 in the wake of the Selma Freedom Marches and the lynching of Emmett Till. One gets the feeling that Staples would love to hang-up the Civil Rights protest song for a well-deserved retirement, its work being done, but as long as injustice remains Staples will be there to bear witness and demand action, armed with a song and a voice that commands attention.
By ending her set with the uniting “Touch a Hand, Make a Friend” and “No Time for Crying” – on which she sings “People are dying/Bullets are flying/We’ve got work to do” – Staples tasked fans to be their best, fight for what’s right and to demand more from the powers that be.
Check out photos from the Pitchfork Music Festival below – featuring Sky Ferreira, Rico Nasty, Haim and more – and head over to Mavisstaples.com for a full list of the singer’s upcoming tour dates.
(Slideshow below by Laurie Fanelli; click on each photo to advance)