By George Varga
There is nothing outwardly professorial in appearance or demeanor about Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples, whose joint 2022 tour concluded Tuesday night in San Diego with a sold-out concert at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.
But the vibrant performances by these supremely skilled artists were a master class in musical excellence, emotional fervor and the art of simultaneously entertaining and uplifting an audience.
It was also a life-affirming celebration of blues, gospel, funk, soul, rock and other homegrown American music styles that sizzled and soared, thanks to Raitt, Staples and their superb bands.
And it was a welcome testimonial to the durability and enduring vitality of these two long-acclaimed artists — both are Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees, Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award-winners and unwaveringly devoted social activists.
Early in her set, Raitt pointed out the Ukrainian flag she had draped in solidarity on the stage. At the end of the night, she implored her audience: “Don’t forget to vote!”
Staples, who marched and performed at landmark civil rights events in the 1950s and ‘60s, spoke out against voter suppression, political brinksmanship that treats refugees as pawns, and about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning a woman’s right to choose.
“We need to get our house in order,” she declared to cheers. “I think I’ll run for president myself. Vote for me!” Later in the evening, Staples earned a high-profile endorsement. “I’d vote for Mavis,” Raitt said.
That neither Raitt nor Staples is the retiring type, literally or figuratively, was handily reaffirmed during their respective performances before a loudly enthusiastic audience of 4,700.
Staples, 83, sang for 50 minutes with her two-woman, three-man band, while Raitt, 72, was on stage for just under 100 minutes with her five-man band. Each clearly relished the opportunity to be back in action, after seeing multiple 2020 and 2021 tour dates fall through because of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of live events.
“This is our 50th year on the road — those (last) two-and-a-half years of ‘house arrest’ were really rough,” Raitt said, following her fourth selection, “Blame It On Me,” an intensely bluesy new ballad.
“We made it!” Staples exulted after belting out “Handwriting on the Wall.”
It was the fourth of the nine selections the diminutive Chicago vocal fireball did during her rousing opening set. She began with “Come Go With Me” and ended with an extended version of “I’ll Take You There,” which featured Staples exuberantly singing charged call-and-response vocal exchanges with the audience and with her band members’ concise instrumental solos.
After mistakenly referring to San Diego as San Francisco, she said teasingly: “I’m old!”
At 83, Staples is — undeniably — a senior citizen and she sometimes glanced at a small screen attached to her microphone stand to help her remember an errant song lyric. But she performed with an ardor that talented vocalists half or a quarter her age would be thrilled to achieve.
Granted, Staples conserved her energy at times. But she did so by design, the better to then unleash a might roar that could make the most secular of listeners contemplate divine inspiration anew. And Staples happily sang Raitt’s praises, at one point joking that she had “adopted” Raitt 40 years ago.
In turn, Raitt extolled Staples several times from the stage. Their mutual admiration society made it somewhat surprising that the two opted not to do a song together, as they did on their previous joint tour a decade ago. But that did not detract from the pleasure of hearing them perform separately Tuesday.
Raitt opened her set with “Made Up Mind,” the percolating, midtempo number that kicks off “Just Like That …”, her splendid new album.
She concluded, 15 songs later, with a joyously rocking version of The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ 1981 rave-up, “I Believe I’m in Love With You.” It featured blazing six-string work by Raitt, her two guitarists — George Marinelli and Duke Levine — and Rick Holmstrom, the fleet-fingered guitarist in Staples’ band.
Raitt’s expertly paced set equally showcased her wonderfully impassioned singing and tart guitar work. Depending on the song, she sounded tender and reflective, playful and boisterous, wise or wide-eyed.
She excelled whether gently essaying her haunting ballad, “Nick of Time,” romping through the John Hiatt-penned “No Business,” or exploring new musical terrain on the jazz-funk-fueled “Waiting For You to Blow,” one of five standout songs she performed Tuesday from her latest album.
Just as good was hard-rocking “Livin’ for the Ones,” which boasted one of the best Rolling Stones’ riffs not written by the Stones. Raitt’s lyrics thoughtfully paid tribute to lost loved ones, including her late brother, while also expressing gratitude for being alive.
“ ‘Living for the Ones’ is the one song on my new album that I wrote during the pandemic,” Raitt noted in a Union-Tribune interview earlier this year.
““That’s how I started feeling when I lost my brother in 2009 and he couldn’t walk or see in last six months of his life. Whenever you’re living with somebody who is losing the ability to live, you very quickly stop complaining about your own pains. So I had a lot of practice (for the pandemic).”
Another song from her new album, the exquisite title track of “Just Like That…,” also examined issues of mortality and redemption. But it did so from the perspective of a heart transplant recipient meeting the mother of the dead young man whose heart now beat anew in the transplant recipient’s body.
Raitt’s remarkably tender vocals were delivered with a grace befitting the stirring subject matter. The wordless refrain she sang evoked an age-old Celtic ballad. It was a standout moment, even in a concert that had an ample number of moving moments.
There was also levity, including Raitt’s sly aside that she likes a “big bottom” (her reference was to the low end in her onstage sound mix). She gave fond shout-outs to family members and friends in the audience, as well as to two musical pals who were present — San Diego troubadour Joel Rafael and former Honk and Funky Kings band mainstay Richard Stekol.
Raitt and Staples each performed Tuesday with vigor and a palpable generosity of spirit. They treated their newest and oldest songs as living, breathing vehicles of artistic expression, not rote, paint-by-numbers exercises. They each dug deep to inject fresh verve and welcome musical twists into classics they have performed for decades.
Witness Raitt’s sublime versions of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and “Angel from Montgomery.” She sang both with an aching tenderness that brought some concertgoers to tears. While she stayed true to the essence of both — the latter written by her longtime friend, John Prine, who succumbed to COVID two years ago — Raitt’s nuanced vocal phrasing and instrumental arrangements added welcome new dimensions to songs she and her fans know inside out.
‘I’ll be back!’
And witness the husky-voiced Staples’ ebullient renditions of “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There,” two gems she first recorded in the early 1970s as a member of her storied family’s gospel-music group, The Staple Singers. She was just 11 when she became a member in 1950.
“I’ve been taking you there for 74 years and I ain’t tired!” Staples proudly declared. “I ain’t going nowhere! I’ll be back!”
Shortly before the conclusion of her set, Raitt pointed to Staples as a role model for longevity, saying: “If Mavis can do it at 83 …”
Messages from James “Hutch” Hutchinson (brbassman)
(A public service message to the four concertgoers seated directly to the right of table 1517 in the Bayview section Tuesday night: The fact that Bonnie Raitt performed “Something to Talk About” was not an invitation for you to loudly yammer as she sang it. Then again, your blabbing almost non-stop throughout the concert indicates you had plenty to talk about, no matter how rude or distracting your high-decibel chatter fest was to other attendees.)