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Mavis Staples

Chris Strong

Mavis Staples with Allen Toussaint At the Chan Centre iIn Vancouver On Sunday

"I have come too far, and I am still on that highway and I will be there until Dr. King's dream has been realized."

Mavis Staples opened her only Canadian tour date with a powerhouse rendition of Freedom's Highway. On the day that a monument to Martin Luther King was dedicated in the National Mall in Washington, Staples was celebrating.

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"Y'all know I'm happy, don't you?" the 73-year-old gospel queen beamed. "I was there [when he made that speech] I am a living witness."

It was a fabulous opening to a set that demanded respect: As Mavis reminded us, the Staples family has been "taking y'all there for 61 years, and we're not tired yet."

Not tired of singing in praise of the Lord and for equality, no, but physically, at least, Staples had to pace herself. Mid-set she, along with her backing singer/older sister Yvonne, sat to the side of the stage to rest as the band played a couple of acoustic numbers. She was also troubled occasionally by a cough that was an obvious frustration to her, drinking water and holding a black towel up to her neck for relief.

But when she was at full strength she soared. Regardless of religious conviction, or lack thereof, when she entreated us with Wade in the Water, you could well believe the heavens were rocking along. And later, when she covered the Band classic The Weight, there was no doubting her ability to take that load.

Friendly and chatty throughout, Staples interacted with an appreciative audience, even pausing to put one fan right when he called out if she was referring to Mahalia Jackson. Staples had said she was taking us back to the 1970s, and did an about-face at the interjection.

"Mahalia was the greatest gospel singer to have ever lived," she said with a smile. "But now it's Mavis's turn." And with that, she launched into her closing number, I'll take you there.

The band was tight, providing plenty of vocal backup as well as terrific bluesy riffs from Rick Hollstrom's guitar.

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They followed an opening set from the ever-classy New Orleans songmeister Allen Toussaint (also 73). Decked out in a glittery green jacket and shiny apricot pants, Toussaint dazzled hardest while careening through a phenomenal back catalogue that included hit covers from the Yardbirds, Jerry Garcia and the Rolling Stones.

Before he left the stage, he apologized to those whose view of him was obscured by his piano, giving one woman a stunning-looking Mardi Gras mask he produced from a nondescript plastic bag.

It was an odd moment, especially coming on the coat-tails of an impassioned performance of City of New Orleans. But when you're a septuagenarian legend still killing on stage, you've surely earned the right to pull up a chair or hand out trinkets whenever you damn well please.

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