If the planet was under threat of annihilation from beyond, and we had to present our divine or interplanetary overlords with just two musical emissaries to make a case that humankind is worth being spared as a species, Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples might be the couple we’d want to pick. Fortunately, with no such emergency yet in sight, they’ve managed to pair up of their own volition for a segment of Raitt’s current headlining tour that makes for a two-sided portrait of what heart, soul and understated heroism look like in music.
Not that those kinds of superlatives showed up anywhere but in the subtext of Saturday night’s show at the Greek Theatre in L.A. It was a show where you could think about what Staples meant during the civil rights movement, and since, or about Raitt’s role as a warrior without uniform in the early days of women fighting to get their due in rock. Or you could just enjoy the chops and grease that feed into the respective performances of historically significant figures who wear their mantles as lightly as anything else they’d need to peel off upon stepping into a humid roadhouse.
“It feels like a club in here,” said Raitt, a few numbers into a 90-minute set on an unusually sweaty first-week-of-fall evening. She did also stop later on to momentarily admire the full house at the Greek — not as a verification of her own queenliness, but a signpost of her ability to finally be back, after quarantine, where she feels she most belongs: on a bus.
Raitt’s set was heavy with five songs from her latest album, “Just Like That…,” with the front-loading of new material including three of the first four numbers — all in a musically familiar enough vein that there likely wasn’t much balking from an audience that knew she’d get to “Nick of Time” more than in the nick of time. She made a point of earmarking the topical resonance of some of the newer songs, introducing “Livin’ for the Ones” by its fuller, extended title, “Livin’ for the Ones That Didn’t Make It,” to make sure the themes of loss and gratitude didn’t get lost. Before she inevitably got to “Angel From Montgomery,” a song she said she hadn’t been sure she’d be able to get through on this first tour since the death of its writer, John Prine, she introduced a new song of her own penmanship, the “Just Like That” title track, as something she had tried to write in the vein of a classic Prine song. “Waitin’ for You to Blow” was explained as a lyric about the demon that sits on the shoulder of those in recovery, harking back to the days when she was first writing about being in recovery herself, more than three decades ago.
Setting up some of the choicer classics, Raitt would pause to add a tart or sentimental note — or sometimes both, as when she intro-ed the title track of 1989’s career-revivifying, Grammy-hoarding “Nick of Time” album. She noted that the woman who inspired the first verse, childless at the time, was in attendance with her grown-up miracle baby. But she also established that at least part of the song was about her, when she quipped, “Remember when we were afraid to turn 40?” Bringing it back from the joke, she added: “We’re not scared now.” Bringing mortality into it is not something Raitt shies away from, in any case: “No Business,” a John Hiatt cover (taking the place of his more familiar “Thing Called Love” in the setlist), came with not just a shout-out to producer Don Was but one of the ones that didn’t make it, that particular Capitol-era album’s late engineer, Ed Cherney.
It’s long been the case that two Raitts don’t make a wrong, and the two iconic iterations that we got of her in the Greek performance both proved as worth of veneration as they’ve always been. There’s the heartbreaker Bonnie, waiting to deliver “I Can’t Make You Love Me” until seated on a stool for the encore because there’s not much that can follow it. (Anyone who harbored any doubts about whether she’d still be in prime vocal form for her showcase ballads, into her early 70s, likely would not have spent much time thinking about how her powerhouse father, John Raitt, sang creditably into his 90s.)
And there’s slide-guitar hero Bonnie — a player who might merit a place in rock’s Hall of Fame if all she’d ever done was act as somebody else’s lead guitarist, without ever singing a lick of lead vocals herself. Raitt played slide more as an undertow during the opening number, the new “Made Up Mind,” then set it down for the second song, before declaring, “No more Mrs. Nice Guy — give me that Strat,” as she went into the third with full intentions of giving that instrument its own follow-spot from then on. Her instrument was also part of a guitar army at times, especially as she lined up in a row with George Marinelli (a longtime cohort who’s joining her band on select dates) and regular tour guitarist Duke Levine on “Livin’ for the Ones,” which co-writer Marinelli seems to have originally fashioned as a pure Stones workout before Raitt added her poignant lyrics.
Raitt has been mixing up the setlists a little on this tour (which, as she noted, is just getting underway and extends into 2023). So has Staples — on any given night, there’s at least a faint chance she will cover Talking Heads’ “Slippery People” and Raitt will end her set with “Burning Down the House.” Neither of those Heads songs popped up Saturday, with the headliner preferring to end the pre-encore portion instead with a medley of Chaka Khan and Rufus’ “You Got the Love” and her own “Love Sneakin’ Up on You.”
With 50 years of touring under her belt, there’s not much about Raitt that counts as a sneak attack at this point, but the sellout status of the Greek speaks to how she’s one of the most reliable artists we’ve known over that half-century — and maybe the one we can most certainly count on to reassure us that we do (to cite another classic performed) “have a heart.”
Raitt didn’t inject a lot of politics into her set, beyond pointing out the presence of a Ukrainian flag draped across the front of Ricky Fataar’s drum riser (“They’re going to need a lot more of our help,” she said, predicting a more heightened refugee crisis to come”). With HeadCount on site to register voters, it may not take a lot of effort to suss where the singer stands on certain key issues. Staples had already cited a fair amount of current events in her opening performance, anyway, as in “This Is My Country,” she added a spoken-word segment that began with “I’m not too proud right now…” What is Staples fired up about? The Supreme Court reversing women’s rights, politicians toying with migrants for publicity (“They got babies!”), and limitations being put on voter options in minority areas. Out in the lobby, “Mavis for President” buttons were on sale on the merch booth, although, sadly, there are no signs yet of a Staples PAC.
Aside from that fleeting recognition that, yes, everything is going to hell, Staples’ set was a 50-minute joyful noise, full of the secular gospel that fueled the family’s career in the ’60s and has carried through to the solo renaissance that got seriously underway for her in the mid-2000s. Her material with and without the family veered from religious uplift to social uplift, where it has almost entirely stayed, and she is as great an emblem of social justice-as-joy as America has had for the last 74 years — the exact figure she put on exactly how long the Staples have been “taking you there.”
But there has been one very sexy number that slipped through in the Staple Singers’ catalog of classics, “Let’s Do It Again,” written by Curtis Mayfield for the sisters in 1976. (We didn’t have to look that one up because Staples sometimes provided the dates herself. “Curtis Mayfield! 1976!… We gonna take you, 1971!”) She played the sauciness of “Let’s Do It Again” for all it was worth in some amusingly extended call-and-response with her band leader, Rick Holmstrom, before putting a stop to it. “All right, I got enough,” she quipped, taking a seat before the grand finale. “I’m getting too up in age for this.” Not to worry; “let’s do it a little” is a fine modification for a performer who’s earned the right to race herself and then pace herself. Up to that possibly theatrical rest stop, and again for the finale, Staples was racing like the thoroughbred she still is.
“I don’t know if any teenyboppers are out there?” Staples asked at one point. “Because teenyboppers, they come out to see what us old folk are doing, and we love them — we learn from them teenyboppers. You out there, teenyboppers?” Parts of the crowd screamed in response, and if that was a baldfaced lie, maybe it was an excusable one on a night so otherwise hallmarked by the blues and the not-too-abstract truth.