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Originally published June 23, 2014 at 2:19 PM | Page modified June 24, 2014 at 8:52 AM

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Mavis Staples lights up the ZooTunes stage | Concert review

A review of longtime gospel and blues singer Mavis Staples’ performance at Woodland Park Zoo on Sunday.

Seattle Times theater critic


“We’re here to bring you joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations,” proclaimed Mavis Staples on Sunday night at Woodland Park Zoo.

“It should last you — I don’t know, six months?”

At least.

On a sun-drenched summer eve before an adoring crowd, the incomparable singer and longtime civil-rights advocate brought it and then some, in a ZooTunes concert rich in spirit, lusty musicality and the kind of funky and gospel-infused affirmation that has influenced her music since childhood, when she began performing with legendary family band The Staple Singers.

Just a few weeks shy of her 75th birthday, Staples has enjoyed a remarkable, well-deserved renaissance as a solo recording artist and concert headliner in the past decade. A frequent visitor to Seattle, she’s never less than exultant onstage.

But with “two new knees, y’all” and a crackerjack band, she was in rare form. Her deep-welled, gravel-and-honey voice sounded terrific. She playfully scatted and riffed with her fellow musicians.

Looking swell in a loose, black tunic and gold jewelry, she opened her arms often as if to embrace the crowd, waving and calling out to audience members. And when the band was on fire, she even got her groove on with a few dance moves. She was having such a blast that at one point backup singer Yvonne Staples chided her to “cool it” and get back to singing. (That’s an older sister for you.)

But Staples sang plenty, preserving the blues-meets-rock-and-gospel sound introduced by her late guitarist-singer father, Pops Staples, but augmented now with new numbers — like the black-is-beautiful anthem with a chorus that went, “I liked the things about me that were once despised.”

One highlight was a chugging, rousing version of her dad's energizing civil-rights anthem “Freedom’s Highway.” (She noted, “He wrote it for the big march — the one from Selma to Montgomery. I was there!”) Another was a marvelous throwback: “Let’s Do It Again,” the sultry hit theme song for a Sidney Poitier-Bill Cosby film, written for The Staple Singers by Curtis Mayfield.

And, of course, no Mavis Staples concert is complete without a rendition of the Stapleses’ biggest hit, “I’ll Take You There,” an irresistibly ecstatic call to spiritual (and, intentionally or not, sexual) healing.

Singer-songwriter Marc Cohn, another ZooTunes favorite, opened the show with a pleasing set of his own soulful, sensitive original material, including a lovely tribute song to the late Levon Helm — a musical friend he and Staples had in common.

Misha Berson:

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