When Red Butte Garden announced a two-nights-running double-bill of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt, it was clear the audience was in for something special.
That proved true Tuesday night, the first of the two-night stand, as soul legend Staples teamed with “little sister Bonnie” to provide one of the more memorable nights of the summer, a deep dive into gospel, soul and rhythm and blues by two of America’s favorites.
Staples, as is her wont, blended barn-burning cover songs with cuts from her vast catalog of both solo hits and songs from her years in the Staples Singers. She opened with Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” turned up the funk in the gospel-driven “Creep Along Moses” and knocked “Wrote a Song for Everyone” and The Band’s “The Weight” out of the park, before leading the crowd in chants of “Levon Helm! Levon Helm! Levon Helm!” in tribute to the recently fallen Band man.
Proclaiming that she and her stellar band were at Red Butte to spread “some joy, and some good vibrations,” Staples made it so thanks to her passionate takes on “You Are Not Alone” and Curtis Mayfield’s “This Is My Country.”
Staples brought the headlining Raitt on stage to share the vocals (and add some of her patented stinging guitar licks) to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” afterward regaling the crowd with a story about how Pops Staples always loved “sister Bonnie.” She then ended her solid set with an inarguable classic, “I’ll Take You There.”
Raitt took the stage and greeted the audience by proclaiming Red Butte Garden “the most ridiculously beautiful place we get to play,” besides Colorado’s Red Rocks. She leaned heavily on her latest release Slipstream early in the set, delivering album-opener “Used to Rule the World” to open the show, and following with her cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line,” a tune Raitt and her band delivered with a hint of reggae.
Raitt’s lengthy set ran for nearly two solid hours, bouncing between Slipstream cuts and old favorites. “Something to Talk About” was an early favorite, and the crowd was responsive to Raitt’s slick slide-guitar and strong vocals right from the get-go. She covered Bob Dylan’s “Million Miles” and sounded great on “Love Sneaking Up On You.”
Raitt introduced her new “Marriage Made in Hollywood” by saying it showed off some of her “Celtic roots,” and she followed with another new one, “Take My Love with You.”
Her version of John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” was easily the most powerful performance of the night, a perfect combination of passionate playing and vocals that truly showed what Raitt is capable of. For all the talk about Raitt being a blueswoman–and she certainly can play the blues like nobody’s business–she is truly a pop stylist, capable of delving into all manner of music. Throughout Tuesday’s show, she touched on a variety of styles, always staying rooted in Americana, but veering into reggae, Celtic, rock and country as well as the blues.
Her hit cover of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love” was, as expected, a highlight, and her encore that included “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” “Have a Heart” and ’70s-era favorite “Louise” proved a perfect ending for pretty ideal evening all around.