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Mavis Staples shakes up the purists at Chicago Blues Festival

After her introductiby cargo-shorted Mayor Rahm Emanuel Mavis Staples sings Sunday night close Chicago Blues Festival Petrillo Music Shell. |

After her introduction by cargo-shorted Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Mavis Staples sings Sunday night to close the Chicago Blues Festival at the Petrillo Music Shell. | RIchard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 12, 2012 6:15AM

During the early 1960s, Southern highways were the loneliest trails for men and women of the Great Migration.

The late Koko Taylor and Mavis Staples put their trials and tribulations into songs of inspiration, sorrow and lightning bolts of joy. Their spirits put a very nice close to the 29th Chicago Blues Festival before a huge crowd Sunday night at the Petrillo Music Shell.

Calling the Sunday audience “Taste of Chicagoish,” a city spokeswoman said 500,000 people attended the three-day festival, and Sunday night’s audience was one of the largest evening crowds I have seen in several years.

The crowd included Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who introduced Staples. His baggy cargo shorts would have been right at home at the Beach Boys concert a couple of weeks ago as he paid homage to Staples as “the Doctor of Blues,” as she recently received an honorary doctorate from Columbia College. Staples was at a humbled loss for words before rolling into a spiritual-tinged set that picked up where last month’s appearance in the gospel tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival left off.

Guitarist Rick Holmstrom laid down humid Creedence swamp licks for “Creep Along Moses” and the Staples Singers’ 1965 call-to-arms “Freedom Highway.” Staples paid tribute to her late compatriot Levon Helm with a cresting cover of “The Weight” with Donny Gerrard (I never get tired of pointing out he sang lead on the 1972 Skylark hit “Wildflower”) replicating the Pops Staples parts from “The Last Waltz.”

She offered a measured, soulful take of Jeff Tweedy’s “You Are Not Alone,” the title track from her latest album while clapping her hands and offering a smile that has crossed a thousand bridges.

A gospel version of a Jeff Tweedy song at the Chicago Blues Festival? Blues purists were turning their heads like Linda Blair in “The Exorcist.”

But the best ringer was Staples covering Taylor’s best-known hit “Wang Dang Doodle,” missing from the earlier Koko tribute because the segment ran too long. Staples sang the Willie Dixon composition with her best barroom swagger, adding that Taylor was the only person who could call Staples “Mable.” Taylor couldn’t pronounce “Mavis.”

The Taylor tribute was everything Friday night’s centennial Lightnin’ Hopkins celebration should have been. It was tight, and crisp, and the talent actually sang songs about their subject.

Taylor’s only offspring, Cookie Taylor addressed the crowd after the set pointing out it was three years ago Sunday that she buried her mother. Koko Taylor was born in 1928 on a sharecropper’s farm outside of Memphis, Tenn., and four female singers took their turns saluting their mentor: Jackie Scott from Norfolk, Va., followed by Chicago’s Dietra Farr, a gritty Nora Jean Bruso from Greenville, Miss., and finally Chicago firecracker Chick Rodgers, who delivered a steamy, attitude-driven version of Taylor’s “I’m a Woman,” the answer song to Bo Diddley’s 1955 hit “I’m a Man.”

For me, the most memorable part of the Taylor tribute was seeing Taylor’s Blues Machine band back in action. The group is led by rock-influenced guitarist-vocalist Vino Louden, who began playing with the blues queen in 1992.

In the summer of 2008 a van carrying four Blues Machine members hit a concrete overpass in northern Wisconsin. Louden suffered a neck fracture and cracked pelvis. He had two heart attacks during emergency surgery. And here he was, playing with liberation in the bold tradition of Luther Allison on a beautiful evening in Chicago.

The blues highway can be many things, but Sunday night’s closing set celebrated its dimensions of resilence.

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