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Staples gig brims with good vibes

It might just be her roots in gospel, but Mavis Staples began her Britt show Saturday night by telling the crowd she and her band were on hand to provide "joy, happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations."

Here's the shortest review in Britt history: Mission accomplished.

No, but seriously. Staples put on a show that was part concert, part revival meeting and all musical/spiritual ebullience. With her whip-sharp six-piece band, she charged through a set that ranged from gospel to Stephen Stills to Talking Heads to, well, the Staple Singers.

The difference between Staples' show this year and last summer, when she did an opening gig for John Hiatt while struggling with a bad knee, was like the difference between lightning and lightning bug.

Yes, she used an escort and a cane to come onto the Britt stage; but once on, the 74-year-old legend was the whole package her fans love and expect.

Singer/songwriter Marc Cohn opened the evening with a set that was non-opener-ish because it was so strong. From his own "Walk Through This World" to Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" to Cohn's "Perfect Love," a song about his faith in love in a world awash in troubles, Cohn combined soulful singing, intelligent lyrics and effective piano playing into the kind of show that demonstrates that an enduring artistic integrity trumps the fads and trickery of the day.

Cohn is a Cleveland native who worked in New York City as a session player and got a contract with Atlantic Records after playing on Tracy Chapman's second album. His self-titled 1991 album was hugely successful, with the Grammy-nominated "Walking in Memphis."

He's released a half-dozen generally well-received albums since and performed with singers from Bonnie Raitt to Suzanne Vega, Roseanne Cash, Shawn Colvin, Rodney Crowell and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

Cohn was accompanied by keyboardist extraordinaire Glenn Patscha and the Rogue Valley's own Jeff Pevar on guitar. Cohn can jump it up in a Hugh Laurie-meets-Bruce Hornsby mode in the rollicking "Twenty-nine Ways" ("I got 29 ways to make it to my baby's door / And if she needs me bad / I can find about two or three more"), then take it down to a lovely ballad like "True Companion," the kind of song that becomes a staple at weddings.

"Listening to Leon" was a tribute to the late drummer of The Band," and "Silver Thunderbird' is a song about the singer remembering his dad as a kid. And by the time Cohn sang his biggest-ever hit, "Walking in Memphis," if you weren't swaying, you had no soul.

The term "living legend" gets thrown around a lot, but Mavis Staples' pedigree is the real deal. The Staple Singers went from being the voice of the civil rights movement in the 1960s to being hit-makers on the pop charts after mixing gospel with soul in the 1970s.

In a performing career she began as a young girl in the 1950s she's been produced by Prince and Ry Cooder, sampled by Salt 'N' Pepa and Ice Cube, recorded with Bob Dylan (with whom she had a close friendship), Ray Charles, The Band, Natalie Merchant, Doctor John and Patty Griffin and still found time to appear in movies and on TV when she's not involved in civil rights activism.

She kicked off her set with a rocking "Come Go With Me," which turned out to be a mere warmup for a spirited go at the Buffalo Springfield's topical old "For What It's Worth" ("It's time to stop, hey, what's that sound, everybody look what's goin' down").

"Good Evening y'all!" Staples cried. "Were are we?"

Following a bit of ribbing about Medford, Jacksonville and the Rogue Valley, the band launched into, of all things, a romping take on Talking Heads' "Slippery People," which in turn led to the Staples Singers' soulful 1971 post-civil rights empowerment tune "Respect Yourself," complete with a little scat from Mavis.

When Mavis Staples gets into the civil rights thing, gently these days, she's coming from history. Her father, "Pops" Staples, a friend of Martin Luther King, wrote "Freedom Highway" on the eve of the 1965 freedom march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

When TV cameras caught white state troopers and police attacking peaceful civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with clubs and tear gas, the event became known as ''Bloody Sunday'' and triggered outrage outside the South.

But Staples is anything but stuck in the past. She rolled out a sweet version of her 2010 ballad "You Are Not Alone," then led the band into a muscular interpretation of The Band's "The Weight," trading vocal leads with backup singer Conny Gerrard, guitarist Rick Holmstrom and bassist Jeff Turmes.

That brought the show full circle, since Marc Cohn had talked earlier about playing with The Band's Levon Helm.

Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at varble.bill@gmail.com.