Mavis Staples Gleefully Kicks Off 80th Birthday Concerts With Maggie Rogers, David Byrne & More

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Mavis Staples and Maggie Rogers perform during "Newport Folk Presents: Mavis & Friends" at The Apollo Theater on May 9, 2019 in New York City.  

Many were screaming with joy at the Apollo Theater on Thursday night (May 9), but no one had more fun than Mavis Staples at her first of several star-packed 80th birthday parties.

The soul and gospel legend won’t officially blow out her candles until July 10, but the Newport Folk Festival -- which wheeled a cake onstage, letting the crowd sing “Happy Birthday” for Staples’ 75th in 2014 -- threw the first of three concerts to ring in her eighth decade on hallowed ground.

Staples first played the Apollo in 1956 with her family band, the Staple Singers; a portrait of her alongside her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, and sisters, Yvonne and Cleotha, hangs on the storied venue’s staircase leading up to the mezzanine. Her history with Newport Folk stretches nearly that far back, as the Staple Singers first played the festival in 1964, when they shared a ride to the grounds with Johnny Cash and a stage with Bob Dylan for the first time. (Dylan and Staples dated briefly, and though she turned down his marriage proposal, they’re still friends and toured together as recently as 2017.)

The beloved musical matriarch has contributed some of the most familiar verses on record to the canons of rock, folk, soul and R&B, from the Staple Singers’ own chart-toppers and anthems (“I’ll Take You There;” “Everyday People,” “Freedom Highway”) to notable collaborations (hers is the most stirring voice in The Band’s “The Weight”). Her returns to Newport Folk are social affairs, as scores of musicians -- including Jeff Tweedy, Ben Harper, Hozier, Valerie June and many more -- have clamored to join her on the mic at any given opportunity, just as they have in the studio. Mavis & Friends is as much an extension of her magnetism as it is her relationship with Newport Folk, as the concert series highlights her deep, familial connections to the festival, but especially those she’s riffed with on its main stage in recent years.

When Jon Batiste curated a set inspired by the music of the civil rights movement for Newport Folk’s closing set in 2018, Staples was the spiritual core of that medley: she came out out to perform “Freedom Highway” with him and a veritable crew of powerhouse singers, including June, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, Brittany Howard, Kam Franklin of the Suffers, the Lone Bellow, Nicole Atkins, Maggie Rogers and more. Several of those who sang with her at Newport last summer were the “Friends” for the Apollo show, and Staples kept bubbling over into gleeful giggle-fits from the top of the set to the all-hands-on-deck finale of “The Weight.”

She relished in trading full-chested belts with June and Rogers (on “Living On a High Note,” which June penned for Staples, and “May The Circle Be Unbroken,” the first song Pops taught his children, respectively). She adorably gasped “I’m too excited to talk!” after the Lone Bellow flanked her to stomp and sing through a funkier take on Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth.” She reveled in dancing and goofing off with a side-stepping David Byrne on his own “Slippery People,” and playfully patted Jason Isbell’s arm in approval during his solo on “Change,” her bluesy call to action off her forthcoming Harper-produced album We Get By. Batiste received the warmest welcome from the guest of honor, who introduced him as her “baby brother” and teased him at the piano before the building mirth of the night reached a peak in the effervescence of “I’ll Take You There.” When the audience started singing “Happy Birthday during a break between songs, she paused, genuinely surprised, and cackled when the din grew and she realized what was happening.

Staples had one wish for her birthday, clearly, and that was to throw a true party -- complete with silliness and breathless banter -- in the company of her favorite voices on one of her favorite stages. She’ll get to do it again, too, as Newport Folk Presents: Mavis & Friends continues with a celebration in Nashville on May 15 at the Ryman Auditorium and one on May 22 at Los Angeles’ Theatre at the Ace Hotel.