To describe the Saturday night main stage affair at the Toronto Jazz Festival as a spiritual event would be no exaggeration.
Superficially, it seemed an unlikely pairing: Mavis Staples, a gospel singer with a strong presence in the American Civil Rights Movement; and Dr. John, a renowned songwriter whose brand of psychedelic blues remains a living testament to the atmosphere and soul of New Orleans. Aside from their shared participating in the classic Scorcese film The Last Waltz, one might initially be hard-pressed to connect the dots. But scratch beneath the surface and one finds two kindred artists, each committed to music as spiritual experience.
Taking the stage first, the sassy Staples easily drew the audience into the palm of her hand, bantering between belted tunes about days long past and the bad knee that she refused to let keep her from her “cousins” in Canada. With an extensive catalogue to draw from, Staples wisely plucked tunes one would consider timeless (“I’ll Take You There”; “Freedom Highway”) and nestled them between treats from her new release One True Vine (which dropped yesterday). For good measure, we were also treated to her take on The Band’s infamous tune “The Weight”, which was enthusiastically received by fans young and old.
For her part, Staples seemed thrilled at the range of ages in attendance, playfully remarking to one of the younger attendees that he “wasn’t even born yet” when she began performing certain material. The tent transformed into a gospel church – Mavis’ Church – where only happiness and joy are permitted. It was incredibly uplifting and truly a privilege to be in the presence of someone with such incredible vocal power and love of song. Enlisting the crowd for a sing-along, she playfully scolded, “We’ve been taking you there for 63 years; you can take us there for a few minutes.”
She was right: we absolutely could, and did.
If Staples provided the rousing of spirits, Dr. John invited our open hearts to sit a spell and contemplate life, love and our fellow man. Whether playing the piano, keys, guitar or any other tool of his trade, the doctor was in and he had the prescriptions in order. For the social justice crowd, classic track “The Monkey” hit to the core of human experience, while older treats like “Gris-Gris Gumbo Ya Ya” had die-hards swaying, transporting them away to N’awlins.
I have to say, I walked into this set with very little knowledge of Dr. John. Having knowledge of his style and history, I wanted to be surprised. I was certainly enthralled by the man who needed no flashy stage show, no witty remarks to keep the audience’s attention. The gritty blues unfurling like smoke from a hookah was more than enough to power him through a two-hour set, including a rather loudly demanded encore. I frequently found my eyes closing as I soaked in the richness of sound, my heart carried away to places and times I’ve never seen. Like Staples before him, Dr. John made the tent his own place of worship, and we revered his home and its earthy sonic gifts alongside him.
Thoroughly satisfied and rejuvenated, I slipped out of the tent with a nod to the departing Dr. John, inhaling the rain-kissed night air. It was a very good night for music indeed.