Mavis Staples’ 85th Birthday Salute Brings Out Chris Stapleton, Hozier, Black Pumas, Bonnie Raitt and Other All-Star Acolytes

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If we had the ability to assess who is the most beloved figure in music — not in overall numbers, but sheer adoration, per capita and per peer — it likely wouldn’t be Taylor or Beyoncé but Mavis Staples, who has been taking us there since the late ’60s. There being the smile that crosses anyone’s face when fortunate enough to be in the same room, or even in just giving a passing thought to that voice, that presence, and all the different ways in which Staples embodies righteousness. The term “national treasure” doesn’t even begin to get at it.

With flowers-giving being a natural state of affairs for Staples at this point in her stature, drawing up a solid list of willing performers for a salute to the legendary singer probably doesn’t count as the most daunting task ever. An assemblage of musical greats in their own right gathered at the YouTube Theater in the greater L.A. area Thursday night for “Mavis Staples 85th: All-Star Birthday Concert,” a three-and-a-half-hour affair that had a roster including Hozier, Chris Stapleton, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Black Pumas performing on their own or, eventually, with the birthday gal.

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Also on the crowded lineup poster were Jeff Tweedy, Nathaniel Rateliff, Norah Jones, Grace Potter, the War and Treaty, Taj Mahal, Robert Randolph, Keb’ Mo, Trombone Shorty and Michael McDonald … fronting a band assembled by Don Was and including such name players as Benmont Tench and Greg Leisz (plus her longtime guitarist Rick Holmstrom, who led Staples’ own touring band onto the stage for the very last stretch). The words “You Are Not Alone” — the title of a Tweedy-penned comeback song — were fairly applicable by the time the full cast came out to share “The Weight” at show’s end.

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 18: (L-R) Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples perform onstage during the Mavis Staples' 85th: All-Star Birthday Celebration at YouTube Theater on April 18, 2024 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Blackbird Presents and Live Nation )
Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples perform onstage during the Mavis Staples’ 85th: All-Star Birthday Celebration at YouTube Theater on April 18, 2024 in Inglewood, California.

Mutual admiration societies have a funny way of expressing themselves when Staples is in quip mode. When she brought Raitt out near the end of the show to sing “I’m on My Way” with her near the close of the evening, there was some fervent hugging, and Staples joked, “She grab me every chance she get.” Raitt explained herself: “You’ve got a secret. I wanna learn what that is.” Staples is probably one of the few artists around who could get away with saying to the singer and slide guitarist “Come on, little girl.” After their shared number, the legend kept calling out Raitt’s name and added, “Pops [Mavis’ father] used to say, ‘There’s a little piece of leather, but she’s well put together.'”

Staples and Raitt nearly had a mild flirtation going on, and that seemed contagious. When Raitt was separately dueting with Browne, she had a moment of spontaneously blurting: “God he’s so good looking, isn’t he?,” noting that after all these years, she was “still looking at him, going, he’s still got it.” (“Bonnie’s still got it, too,” he replied, taking the compliment.)

Stapleton provided more contemporary firepower, hiding his from the spotlight under the shadow of his ever-present cowboy hat but letting his voice ring loud and clear alongside Staples’ on a moving duet of “Friendship,” first recorded by her father, “Pops” Staples, near the end of his life.

Hozier was the artist on the bill with the most heat in the present moment, with a song (“Too Sweet”) currently in the top 5. He also has some of the best bona fides for appearing at a tribute, since he wrote a song that in part pays tribute to Staples and then got her to sing on it — “Nina Cried Power” (named after another great singer who is name-checked in the tune), a single from his second album. Staples did not come out and reprise her vocal on that song, a duty that was instead ably taken over by the night’s backup troupe, the McCrary Sisters. In the absence of the guest of honor, he paid tribute to Staples as he does every night on tour, offering a spoken testimony about her historical impact.

“Artists like Mavis, in the words of WB Yates, can hold in their work, in the same thought, reality and justice,” Hozier said. “And these two very often opposing things can show us a picture of our world, but also show us our love and the small things  — it could be love between people, our neighbors — the small solidarities that hold our world together. One such example of that, a critical mass, obviously, was the civil rights movement. I say this every show when we play this song: The civil rights movement here in America that Mavis was in the center of directly inspired the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland… And there’s an Irish revolutionary by the name of James Connolly who once wrote that ‘no revolution is ever complete without its poetical expression.’ I just want to say, Mavis has always represented to me the poetical expression of the ongoing revolution of love and kindness.”

Hozier has an earthy side to go along with his high-mindedness, as anyone who has heard “Too Sweet” can attest. And so he paid tribute to Staples having these different sides, too — and showed off his own latent, classic R&B inclinations — by following “Nina Cried Power” with a cover of the sexiest song in Mavis’ career, “Let’s Do It Again,” a No. 1 pop and R&B hit for the Staple Singers in 1975.

Hozier is of course not the first younger artist to make a point of finding ways to put Staples back in the limelight. Wilco’s Tweedy did it by writing and producing an album for her a little more than 15 years ago that put her in front of a rock audience. The two of them performed the most memorable song from that recording with the touring band she brought along to accompany her on the night’s final stretch.

“Tweedy wrote this song for me. What year was that? — oh-eiight — and it’s the most beautiful song I had ever heard. So we went on and recorded it, and it got us a Grammy.” At another point in the show, Tweedy sang without Staples in reviving another song he wrote for her, “One True Vine,” the title track of their followup collaboration in 2013.

Performing on his own, Browne told the audience about his discovery of Staples at a key early point in his life. “I always tell Mavis that she’s been with me my whole life, but actually, it was (age) 15 when I first heard the Staple Singers in my sister’s apartment in Height Asbury and it changed everything.” That was when he started finding my own voice and singing my own songs,” and Browne said he was performing his song “These Days” for no other reason than “it’s from that period in my life.”

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 18: Jackson Browne performs onstage during the Mavis Staples' 85th: All-Star Birthday Celebration at YouTube Theater on April 18, 2024 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Blackbird Presents and Live Nation )
INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 18: Jackson Browne performs onstage during the Mavis Staples’ 85th: All-Star Birthday Celebration at YouTube Theater on April 18, 2024 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Blackbird Presents and Live Nation )

But he had a more tangible reason for following that with another original song, “World in Motion,” for which Raitt came out to share vocals and play slide guitar. “I recorded it with my band,” he said, “but a good friend of mine had the idea getting it to Pops Staples and having him sing it, which he did in ’92. And the person who had that idea was my good friend, my sister Bonnie Raitt. I’m always revising songs, they change all the time… but this is definitely my favorite version of this song, Pops Staples’ ‘World in Motion.’”

The two key members of Black Pumas, backed by the house band, did their own career-making “Colors,” along with a cover and a cover — the George Clinton-co-penned 1971 Funkadelic song “Can You Get to That,” which Stavis and Tweedy adapted in 2013 for the “One True Vine” album.

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 18: Black Pumas perform onstage during the Mavis Staples' 85th: All-Star Birthday Celebration at YouTube Theater on April 18, 2024 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Blackbird Presents and Live Nation )
Black Pumas perform onstage during the Mavis Staples’ 85th: All-Star Birthday Celebration at YouTube Theater on April 18, 2024 in Inglewood, California.

Closing out the first act, before a brief intermission, Grace Potter covered a song from Mavis’ solo debut album of 1969, called “You’re Driving Me (Into the Arms of a Stranger),” and then emerged from behind her keyboard to explain what Staples meant to her. “This woman, she changed my life,” Potter said. “She made me see my future self and plan ahead for the woman I would become. And I want to play you that song that I wrote after meeting Mavis.” But, she cautioned, before playing “Big White Gate” (a 2013 song written about a woman becoming penitent as she approaches death), “I want to be clear, this is not a sign about Mavis, because it’s not very complimentary!”

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 18: Grace Potter performs onstage during the Mavis Staples' 85th: All-Star Birthday Celebration at YouTube Theater on April 18, 2024 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Blackbird Presents and Live Nation )
Grace Potter performs onstage during the Mavis Staples’ 85th: All-Star Birthday Celebration at YouTube Theater on April 18, 2024 in Inglewood, California.

The husband-wife duo the War and Treaty were the only artist of the night to only do one number, perhaps to the audience’s slight disappointment — but what they lacked in minutes on stage, they made up for by slaying on one of the Staple Singers songs that almost anyone would most want to cover, “Respect Yourself.”

INGLEWOOD, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 18: The War and Treaty performs onstage during the Mavis Staples' 85th: All-Star Birthday Celebration at YouTube Theater on April 18, 2024 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Blackbird Presents and Live Nation )
The War and Treaty performs onstage during the Mavis Staples’ 85th: All-Star Birthday Celebration at YouTube Theater on April 18, 2024 in Inglewood, California.

Hozier was not the only performer of the night who’d been driven to actually name-check “Mavis” in a song, although his was not a literal tribute to Staples. He performed that original number from 2020 before covering another of the night’s cover-of-a-cover — Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Woth,” which not everyone remembers that the Staple Singers did a near-instantaneous version of on a 1967 album (reaching No. 66 at the time on the Hot 100, a few years before the family group really broke big).

Trombone Shorty, a high point of Staples’ 80th birthday concert, came back to reach similar peaks for her 85th, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In” in the first half as well as sitting in with Taj Mahal and Robert Randolph for a jammy moment in the second.

Other highlights included Randolph’s “Baptize Me,” Mahal’s “You’ll Need Somebody on Your Bond,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken ” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” McDonald’s “People Get Ready” and “Freedom Highway,” Keb’ Mo’s “Clap Your Hands” and “Have a Little Faith,” and Jones’ “To Live” and “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

To answer a FAQ, the YouTube Theater event was not filmed for a planned broadcast, even though most all-star concerts put together by Blackbird Presents are; it was a true you-had-to-be-there gala.

Celebrating Mavis seems to be a quinquennial event in L.A., as it doesn’t seem all that long ago that Staples was being feted with an 80th birthday party for the public at downtown’s Orpheum, so here is already looking forward to her 90th, exact local venue to come.

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