There was lots of soul at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sunday night, with “force of nature” Mavis Staples hitting the sweet spot where soul music, gospel and rock-‘n’-roll overlap, and Bonnie Raitt offering up her delicious blend of soul-infused rock and blues. Both ladies, who referred to each other as sisters, still have it goin’ on decades into their respective careers.
Early in her opening set, Staples promised to bring “some joy, some happiness, inspiration and positive vibrations.” And, boy, did she deliver.
Staples kicked off with a cover of “For What It’s Worth,” a song done when she was part of The Staple Singers way back in 1967 and heard on the same stage last summer by a reunited Buffalo Springfield. This is a truly timeless song that still resonates.
Next up was the traditional gospel song “Creep Along Moses,” in the arrangement from Staples’ triumphant 2010 album You Are Not Alone, produced by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. Other songs from this album were a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Wrote a Song for Everyone” and “Too Close / On My Way to Heaven” with the bluesy intro sung by Donny Gerrard.
The rest of Staples’ set dipped into The Staple Singers’ amazing back catalog, including a cover of The Band’s “The Weight” (which The Staple Singers joined in on in the movie The Last Waltz, and here with three of the backing vocalists each taking a verse), “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (which The Staple Singers did in 1965, but here with the “treat” of Raitt joining in), their No. 1 hit “I’ll Take You There” stretched way out to the crowd’s delight, and, perhaps the evening’s highlight, “Freedom Highway,” which “Pops” Staples wrote for the civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
Raitt also delivered the goods with a relaxed performance. The first half of her set drew heavily from her acclaimed new album Slipstream, her first in seven years, including covers of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line” and Bob Dylan’s “Million Miles,” and the ballad “Not Cause I Wanted To,” which entranced the Bowl crowd and to which the chirping crickets added natural ambiance.
Of course, Raitt also played her memorable hits. The early inclusion of “Something to Talk About” was great fun, as was “Love Sneakin’ Up on You,” which was done as a duet with Vicki Randle from Mavis Staples’ band (and the band on The Tonight Show).
Later, during the encore, Raitt movingly sang “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” a song that she is thrilled is getting introduced to the next generation through high-profile covers by Adele and Bon Iver. She also dedicated the bouncy encore performance of “Have a Heart” to local former music exec Hale Milgrim.
As another “treat,” keyboard player Mike Finnigan, whose resume includes playing with Etta James, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and Joe Cocker, plus recording two songs with Jimi Hendrix — can it get cooler than that? — took the lead vocals on “I Got News for You.” Fittingly, this was on Ray Charles’ birthday, and featured some tasty slide guitar from Raitt.
As the Bowl curfew approached, Raitt squeezed in “Real Man” and the Elvis Presley cover “A Big Hunk O’ Love,” leaving the joint on a rockin’ note after a delightfully soulful evening.
Setlist for Mavis Staples
For What It’s Worth
Creep Along Moses
Wrote a Song for Everyone
Too Close / On My Way to Heaven
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? (with Bonnie Raitt)
I’ll Take You There
Setlist for Bonnie Raitt
Used to Rule the World
Right Down the Line
Something to Talk About
You Can’t Fail Me Now
Love Sneakin’ Up on You
Come to Me
Marriage Made in Hollywood
Not Cause I Wanted To
Angel From Montgomery
Thing Called Love
I Got News for You (lead vocals by Mike Finnigan)
I Feel So Damn Good (I’ll Be Glad When I Get the Blues)
I Can’t Make You Love Me
Have a Heart
A Big Hunk O’ Love
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.