Three Rivers Arts Festival music recap: Mavis Staples

Mavis Staples, 78, the last original member of her family’s group, The Staple Singers, was the first musical act to perform at this year’s Three Rivers Arts Festival. (Photo by Darren Campuzano | Staff Writer)

Any Pittsburgh native raised on trips to the Three Rivers Arts Festival can attest that the exhibition of diverse artists and musicians is always accompanied by thick rainfall.

Festival season in the ’Burgh never commences without it.

Amid fears of rain delays and cancellations, each of the biggest musical draws of this year’s festival refused to get lost in the flood. Here’s what happened in case you missed it — and look out for more music recaps through the rest of the week.

The kick-off performance of the Three Rivers Arts Festival featured music fans standing shoulder-to-shoulder through rain at Point State Park — all eager to see the original Chicago soul sister Mavis Staples.

Staples, now 78, starred in The Staple Singers, a family affair which included her father, brother and two sisters. The group — formed in 1948 — became a voice in music for civil rights activism, penning songs about marches Martin Luther King Jr. led from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. It’s been 47 years since the group landed its first hit, “Heavy Makes You Happy,” on the iconic Stax Records.

But today, Mavis is the only Staples singer left. Local WYEP DJ Rosemary Welsch introduced the last surviving member of the ’70s mega-group, thanking the audience for toughing it out in the rain. Welsch assured them it was a like a proper “baptism” before seeing Staples live.

Only the audience wasn’t sprinkled with holy water — they were doused by Pittsburgh rain. But then, much to everyone’s disbelief, the sun found its way past the clouds and the rain ceased. It was as if Staples waved her hand over the sky, pausing any holy ceremonies just long enough to play.

With an excited audience — though cold and wet — Staples was ready to roar. The band launched into an inviting “If You’re Ready.” As a throwback to 1973, Staples speaks to her followers of a different time — one away from current political drama and violence.

From her 2016 record, “Livin’ On A High Note,” Staples sings about her family to the breezy beat of “Take Us Back.” With her always-reliable background singer Donny Gerrard, Staples’ harmonies reach incredibly low vocal ranges — Motown baritone style. Gerrard’s style is especially apparent in “Can You Get to That” from 2013.

But it was the combined vocal effort on a cover of the Talking Heads’ song, “Slippery People,” that revealed such invigorating chemistry between of the vocalists. David Byrne fans love it for its haunting chorus and the singer’s forceful delivery of verses like “Put away that gun / This part is simple / Try to recognize / What is in your mind.”  

The Talking Heads cover was a treat, but Staples’ original work is just as enticing, and varied enough in sound to keep the audience listening. “Build A Bridge” is supported by a silky harmony, and another song — “Who Told You That” — presents more feisty, confrontational growls from Staples. Both contain searing accompaniments from lead guitarist Rick Holmstrom and bassist Jeff Turmes. Staples nicknamed them, “Dr. Feel-Good” and “Dr. Love,” respectively.

Both songs come from her latest album, “If All I Was Was Black,” a socially aware piece that doesn’t shy away from covering sensitive conversations such as police brutality. At the same time, each of the 10 tracks gleam with Staples’ pride of her upbringing as a poised member of the Staples family.

She must get it from her father, whom Staples praises for writing the March on Selma chorale, “Freedom Highway,” proudly declaring that he wrote that one for “The Big March.”

Speaking to the crowd is Staples’ trademark and the audience greeted her words with responses of agreement. Despite the diversity of people that arrived at the Arts Fest, Staples found a way past all conflicting agendas for an hour or two. She has the capacity to create unity on festival lawns — which she certainly did at Point State Park.

Just in case there were any doubts that a 78-year-old can build a bond among a Pittsburgh crowd, the audience chanted “I’ll take you there” — lyrics to an iconic song from The Staples Singers — dozens of times. Soon, there was a thunderous uproar of sound from guitarists Dr. Love and Dr. Feel-Good — enough sound to make the clouds release another round of downpour.

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