Treasure the legends.
At first I wasn’t planning to go see Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples at Overture Hall on Tuesday night. I’ve seen both of them before, didn’t really know their new albums, it was a Tuesday night. The usual excuses.
But then those videos of Joni Mitchell singing at the Newport Folk Festival started circulating Monday morning. Mitchell suffered a brain aneurysm in 2015, and I assumed I’d never hear her sing again, let alone sing so beautifully.
It was a reminder to treasure the legends while they’re still with us. There’s no particular reason to think Raitt, 72, or Staples, 83, won’t still be around for a while to come (“This won’t be the last you hear from me,” Staples expressly said at the end of her opening set. “I’ll be back.”) But, especially after going without live music for a long stretch recently, you don’t want to be the one who missed your last chance at a transcendent musical moment because it was a Tuesday night, right?
The Overture show provided many such moments, with both artists still working at the height of their powers as performers. Staples, a gospel and blues icon, took the stage with what can only be described as swagger, shimmying and belting out both classics (“I’ll Take You There”) and strong recent material. “Loosen your seatbelts,” she exhorted the audience. “You need to get loose like a bowl of Jell-O.”
Backed by a tight band in steel gray suits, Staples captivated the crowd whether she was doing a gospel rave-up like “Hand Writing on the Wall” or an act of consolation and empathy like the stirring “You’re Not Alone.” She marshaled her energy wisely, taking breaks on a stool and sipping tea during guitar solos, and kidded herself when she momentarily forgot which song to do next. “That’s why I have these youngsters on stage with me, to tell me what I’m good for.”
Staples’ sees performing music as an act of kindness and fellowship, and her joyful spirit was irresistible. That generosity of spirit carried over when Raitt took the stage later, brimming with happiness at being able to play anywhere, but especially in Madison.
She told the crowd that she enjoyed getting away from the “bigger cities with the big reviewers” (ouch, Bonnie) and playing a place like Madison, where it felt like she was among friends. That was literally true, as she shouted out old compatriots like Madison jazz great Ben Sidran and Milwaukee roots icon Paul Cebar in the audience.
The magic of a Raitt concert is how she chats and jokes with an audience between songs, like we all have our feet up at the lake house together, then dive so deep into the emotion of a song like “Nick of Time” or “I Can’t Make You Love Me” that you wonder how she’s ever emerge.
To the pantheon of great Raitt songs she added a few new ones from her 2022 album “Just Like That” (no relation to the “Sex and the City” reboot). They included the aching title track and “Livin’ For the Ones,” a timely midtempo rocker about dealing with survivor’s guilt.
But the showstopper, as always, was Raitt’s cover of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” It’s a song she’s performed for nearly a half a century, but only now has to do in Prine’s absence (the singer-songwriter died from COVID in 2021). That loss added an extra weight to Raitt’s evocation of a lonely old woman. As the crowd burst from their seats at the end of the song, Raitt stood there, head bowed, eyes closed, as if willing Prine to feel their love through her. It was, yes, a transcendent moment.
The only disappointment of the night was that Staples and Raitt, who have been friends since they worked on a Pops Staples solo album decades ago, never took the stage together. But, after seeing two legends in fine form separately, the only proper emotion was gratitude.