Mavis and Haley at Thalia

(Any hypothetical Star Trek reference is purely unintentional.)

Tue Nov 23 2021

It’s safe to say most of us have given up on the ‘return to normalcy’ idea. We continue to feel terrible about the state of the world, desperately seek silver linings in ‘all of this’, feel guilty about enjoying the silver linings, and so forth. Some of us have become alarmists for life; some of us are forever hardened against compassion for anyone we’ve never looked in the eye, and some of us live on the internet now and aren’t coming back. There is no consensus reality any more. We’ve given up on the notion of leadership. We’re left to our own devices, guided only by our own intuition and comfort levels. It’s tricky.

In early 2021 I bought quite a few concert tickets in anticipation of The Return Of Live Music, which was still a fantasy at the time. They said once the vaccines were widely available, a new golden age would be upon us. Many of those tickets I bought were to indoor shows, and when the dates arrived, I…stayed home. Not because of science or pervading public opinion; the calculations were imperceptible and my gut said ‘no’. However, I got my vaccinations, and then I put myself in plenty of arguably risky positions over the summer and on into the fall that I simply couldn’t say ‘no’ to, and I kept getting tested afterwards, and every test was negative. The internal calculations started working out in my favor.

There are certain factors that will tilt the scales of course, things like a) someone’s paying me to review the show, or b) it’s Phish, or c) it’s the reunion of my wife’s band after they’d been broken up for six years. Then there’s the odd happenstance of Thalia Hall booking my two favorite singers in all the living world on the same weekend. Major tilt. If I still had any remaining trepidation, the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict came down on Friday, another source of incredible collective trauma exacerbated on both sides of the case, another illustration of the impossibility of justice in this country. I needed positivity and I needed to blow off steam.

Thalia had hosted my first major indoor gig since March of 2020; that night they had chairs staggered around the floor and very limited capacity, and I had it in my head that it would still be this way. When you think about going to see an all-time legend of soul in their 80s, you tend to imagine a hushed crowd sitting at rapt attention in a theater. I’m not sure that scenario is even possible in Chicago, especially this soon after there were no concerts to talk loudly during. I spent my time during Kelly Hogan’s opening set on Friday night reminding myself that I could tune it out, I could focus on the music and not let the chatter bother me. Hogan is a Chicagoan anyway; surely she’s used to this. Feeling bad for a performer because of a rude crowd isn’t productive, I told myself. It’s a benefit concert for Beyond Hunger; you paid your money, chomp away.

When the lights went down again after the intermission and fundraising pitches, and the band came out, it started to dawn on me. A Mavis Staples concert is not a sit-down affair. She comes onstage and opens her mouth and love pours out and we dance. I’d forgotten. And you know what, I had talked my friend John into meeting me here, and we never get to see each other, and good God it’s hard sometimes, and you know what, halfway through the set, we retreated to the back of the room (IN BIG ENOUGH ROOMS THIS IS ALL I ASK PEOPLE I SWEAR), and we talked. Not like incessant chatter but John is a busy man, a family man, and this was a rare fates-aligning; we had to steal some conversation. The music was plenty loud, and the crowd was lively and into it and out of it, and Ms. Staples was living it up, and there was just no way for anybody there to be having a bad time. It wasn’t the best of both worlds; it was the desperate need to be doing two things at once and not getting nearly enough of either. It was a million times better than getting none of anything.

When I say Mavis is my favorite singer in the world, it has a lot to do with her energy, the experience of being in her presence. Most of my favorite singers I never got to have that experience with, so there’s such a rush of gratitude. The quality of her singing, though, is the sublime marriage of the spiritual and sensual worlds, the effortless oneness as it flows through her and out into the world. It’s right there in the message of her words, of course, echoing back through generations; as she pointed out, the music of The Staple Singers predated almost everybody in the room. It will always be needed. But she also sang the praises of David Byrne and led the band through “Slippery People” and they also did Funkadelic’s “Can You Get To That”, connecting dots, revealing universal threads. Mavis is a beacon of truth and all the rest of us have to do is show up. She sang and talked and danced and laughed for an hour and a half and assured us we haven’t seen the last of her. It was everything I needed to hear.

The Sunday journey to Chicago was a little more serene than Friday’s. I’d made plans to get together with another dear friend, Bob, and this time we both had free time before the show, where conversation more naturally belongs, a marvelous luxury. So I was on the road and completely unaware when another homocidal maniac, this time driving an SUV, was creating a horrific scene at a Christmas parade in Waukesha. Smart phones are great when you’re at work or on the toilet or in a waiting room; other than that I truly hate them. It wouldn’t be until I got home at 1 a.m. that I’d find out about this massacre. The trauma feeding the trauma. This cycle of seemingly random events and we all have to be made aware of, every detail about every single one of them, and they harden people’s hearts against each other a little more each day. We don’t have to let it happen, but even those of us who don’t, feel powerless to stop the hate these days.

My Sunday night was about healing and reconnecting, and my impulse is to feel guilty for typing that, as if my truth is insensitive. The actual truth is I’m not able at this point to abandon my pursuit of love and light in this ever-increasing chaos. I’m still searching for the way I fit into the overall picture of this world, following whatever dim glimmers of inspiration I think I see. And I’m so sick of seeing people begrudge others their paths towards whatever they perceive as the light. There’s nothing easy about life for any of us. Our choices are to trust each other more, or less, in the broadest possible sense. It is a choice.

The music of Circuit Des Yeux is a lot about processing trauma, and that’s part of the healing I’m talking about. We don’t have to argue about whether healing should come from within or from community; that’s all the same thing, you have your shit to deal with, and in dealing with it you’re preparing yourself for your community, whatever that may mean to you. Our first conductor through the darkness was Marvin Tate, a singer and poet who evoked both Captain Beefheart and Wesley Willis at times and actually had, oh, 85% of the crowd spellbound? and the various drone-y accompaniments by Hunter Diamond generally drowned out the rest.

The presumption for the Circuit Des Yeux set was that it would be most or all of the new album, -io, and maybe if we were lucky a noisy “Paper Bag” suite for the encore or something. It’s been the hip trend for many years now: disregard everything that got you here for the sake of this new thing that destroys all the previous things, an attitude I fully appreciate when it comes to my own work. Besides, I had seen the previous album, Reaching For Indigo, performed in its entirety twice already. So when the 14-piece ensemble was ready and surged into “Vanishing”, we thought we knew, some of us, what we were in for.

When I say Haley Fohr is my favorite singer in the world, you won’t glean what I mean by listening to her albums. I’m talking about the force of nature you feel when she’s singing right in front of you. I’m sure Chris Cornell could’ve sympathized, having such a powerful and distinctive natural gift that it dwarfs your actual efforts to put it to creative use. Fohr is also an exceptional songwriter and a true visionary; no genre or band could ever contain her, and the group she’d put together for this performance (one of only three Circuit Des Yeux shows this year) generated an astonishing din as this first song of the set built to its climax. To my surprise, the next song was “Philo”, from Reaching For Indigo. I haven’t listened to this album in a while; sometimes you can only go through the wringer so many times before either you can’t take any more or it’s done all it can do for you. But I’ll always have a deep connection to the album, and hearing a bunch of these songs mixed in with the new stuff, arranged for this beastly rockestra, plunged me into a lot of old and new headspaces. Worlds collided in this performance, and even though the spell was broken between songs for tuning and setup (despite what Fohr referred to as “stretching music” filling up the dead air), the pauses made each piece seem like its own cosmic life cycle, birth-chaos-death in seven-minute bursts, and then the abyss.

There was no intensity lost when the horn section departed for the last few songs; I can’t imagine the sort of preparation that goes into arranging and electrifying such an unusual and powerful set of music, but it paid off each time I heard Bob mutter in astonishment. There’s nothing I love more than convincing someone to see Fohr perform; nobody walks away unfazed. I’ve watched her sing alone on the grand staircase of the Chicago Art Institute, I’ve seen her play a relatively straightforward rock-band set, but nothing blew me away quite like the first time I heard her voice, unamplified, doing vocal warm-ups before the first show I saw her play. I still think about it a lot. I thought about it a couple weekends ago, seeing Credentials perform an incredible album-release set at X-Ray Arcade, when the instrumentalists would stop playing or play very quietly, allowing Sevan Arabajian-Lawson’s naked voice to send shivers down our spines. It takes incredible self-assurance to sing like that, and I know that deep down I still pine to experience Fohr’s voice this way, without the huge band, without all the reverb and effects.

I don’t get to make those decisions, though. Fohr’s voice pierced through every song when necessary, but it was also just another instrument when called for. Perhaps there are starker avenues of expression in Fohr’s future; I would never second-guess her path, though, because with each release and each performance her words and music reach more deeply into me. She obviously knows better than me what she should be doing. Walking back to the car, Bob remarked upon how, if she were to take some of her remarkable melodies and sing them more conventionally, she could almost certainly reach a much wider audience. I couldn’t disagree; Haley Fohr will probably never get what I might think of as “her due”, because she makes music that only weirdoes like me can appreciate. There is no justice. We can spend our lives wishing people would do things differently, with the absolute best of intentions for them. We can sit in our heads knowing that if they’d just listen to us, things could turn out better. Only “better” just means “how we want it”. Sooner or later this strategy will only drain us, though, and meanwhile the world keeps turning irrespective of our little desires. We would do well to let people show us who they are and accept them that way. It’s not about resignation, it’s about reciprocation of respect. Occasionally, people know best how to run their own lives; barring that, it’s still highly unlikely that anyone else does.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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