Mavis Staples | Thalia Hall | Blues, Gospel, and R&B | Chicago Reader

Mavis Staples All Ages Early Warnings (Music) Soundboard Recommended Image

When: March 19-20, 8 p.m. 2016

Songs celebrating joy and positivity are often hard to pull off without sounding like a Pollyanna. Most of us want music to make us feel better, but it typically works best with a tale about universal hardship and dilemma, reminding us that we’re not alone. Gospel great Mavis Staples has spent much of her career singing songs that detail tough times, and even though most achieve a kind of salvation through religion or optimistic thinking, she wanted her new album Livin’ on a High Note (Anti) to be upbeat through and through. Artists half her age were enlisted to write songs, including indie-rock mope M. Ward, who also produced the record using the singer’s nimble working band. Unfortunately, Ward displays little imagination beyond imitating old soul and R&B templates, and many of the songwriters deliver such trite material that only a singer like Staples can save it. Nothing is more cringe-inducing than “Tomorrow,” a saccharine dud by Aloe Blacc and Jon Batiste that makes Pharrell Williams’s “Happy”—which inspired the album’s concept for Staples—sound sophisticated (“When life gives you lemons you go and make a lemon cake,” really?) Neko Case adopts a surprisingly heavy hand on the melodically superb antiwar song “History Now,” where she asks, “Do we go in like a surgeon? Or do we go in like a bomb?” There are some terrific songs—whether from a traditionalist like Ben Harper or a wild card like Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards—but it’s ultimately Staples who does the heavy lifting. If Livin’ on a High Note accomplishes anything it’s in proving what a sympathetic collaborator Jeff Tweedy was on her prior two albums.

Peter Margasak

Price: $33-$48, 3/19 sold out

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