Smile Politely

What It Is!: What it was, and what it could have been

The first thing I like to do when I attend a concert (especially alone) is get a feel for what brought others to the show. After inquiring about their past exposure to Booker T. and Mavis Staples, the kind couple to my right informed me, “We invited the Staples Singers to our house after a performance once, but they didn’t come. Our daughter was in high school then. She’s 56 now, if that gives you any indication of how long we’ve been fans.” And fans they were. Over the next three and a half hours, I don’t think I’ve ever seen septuagenarians get so excited about anything in my life.

From opener JJ Grey’s soulful acoustic strumming, to the very last hand-clapping, foot-stomping, arms-flying notes of Mavis Staples’ “I’ll Take You There,” What It Is! delivered a fantastic night of soul to an audience of appreciative, although a bit subdued, Midwesterners.

I almost felt like I didn’t have a right to be there. Regardless of how much I knew every lyric and appreciated the fullness of the sound booming off the Colwell Playhouse walls, something in me said I could never really gauge the importance of these performers and the impact they’ve had on music, history, and the lives of those around me. The youngest in the room by about 30 years, I sang and clapped and hooted and hollered along with a few others, but I couldn’t capture whatever feeling these Boomers experienced as they closed their eyes and turned the taste of nostalgia over in their mouths quietly, and almost privately.

A twenty-something could not possibly absorb the magnitude of what happened in lil’ ole Champaign-Urbana on Tuesday night. Sure, I grew up listening to Booker T. and the M.G.’s on vinyl while I watched my parents perform the long lost art of “dancing” around the basement. Sure, I could sing along with every song from both sets. Yeah, I surprised the aforementioned couple when I could name “Green Onions” by the first few notes, but I couldn’t savor the history and importance behind all of it. I don’t have a half-century worth of memories built up and assigned to these rhythms.

So perhaps I’m a bit critical and neglecting to acknowledge the actual physical ability of the majority of the audience when I say there should have been SO MUCH MORE intensity at What It Is! Maybe it was the setup of Colwell Playhouse, maybe it was the general awkwardness of the overwhelmingly white audience, or maybe it was the their median age of 65, but there was so much energy wasted on this crowd. Ms. Staples herself, after changing from her high heels into a more comfortable pair of flats toward the end of the set, even exclaimed into the disappointing calmness of the house, “The Staples Singers, we’ve been taking y’all there for 59 years! Now, c’mon!” A field along the side of the road, or the crowded pews of a chapel, or even any venue about 6 hours south of here would have been more appropriate to channel the performers’ energy and siphon some more excitement from the rest of us.

The music itself was, of course, phenomenal. JJ Grey’s opening songs set the tone for an evening that would be a celebration of life, struggle, heartache and perseverance. His five-song set included the soul-filled “Lochloosa,” about the natural beauty of home, and the fear of imminent sprawl bringing the good old days to an end.

When Booker T. took a seat at his trademark Hammond organ, the woman to my left went wild with excitement. If only the rest of the audience was so outwardly enthusiastic. The set list included “She Breaks,” “Green Onions,” “Born Under a Bad Sign,” “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’,” among a few other ribcage rumbling instrumental jams. It wasn’t until the final chords of the last song that the audience actually got really rowdy. So when Booker T. and his band returned to the stage for an encore with “Take Me To The River,” I finally experienced what I’d expected to see the whole night—folks out of their seats, moving bodies to the music, starting to let loose.

After the intermission, as Mavis Staples’ band and backup singers stood watching the star of the evening take stage, the woman to my right yelled, “Now THAT’S Mavis Staples!” I’d expected the crowd to jump to their feet as she opened with “For What It’s Worth,” but apparently the intermission, and fact it was after 9:30 p.m. had taken a toll on whatever energy they had left. One guy a few rows up tried to start a hearty, albeit offbeat, group clap to the rhythm of the next few songs, with little success. Mavis’ throaty baritone voice sang and wailed through each song, and preached to us in between. With her legendary inspirational style, she maintained her enthusiasm, and delivered a set (including “Eyes on the Prize,” “Wade in the Water,” and “The Weight”) that entertained and moved us simultaneously. The night ended with “I’ll Take You There” when Mavis finally requested the audience get up and get moving.

During Staples’ set I felt a twinge of that nostalgia, or was it déjà vu? The entire set was identical to that of NPR’s All Songs Considered, when she performed live at the Newport Folk Festival last summer. Down to the gospel-like sermonizing and story-telling between songs. Seriously, word for word. If you missed the show this week, you definitely missed a great performance, but you can hear an indistinguishable set (minus “Respect Yourself”) here. Actually, in NPR’s recording you can hear proof of an audience vocally enjoying the show!

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