Reorganized a little differently, Sunday night’s Bonnie Raitt/Mavis Staples show at the Santa Barbara Bowl might have become a class: The History of Rhythm and Blues 101. Except, thank god, it wasn’t that linear. Opening with Mavis Staples, a living personification of the Chicago soul school that began with spirituals, the night moved naturally into vibrant protest music like “Freedom Highway,” a song written by her father, Pops Staples, that she soared through. Later, gospel got secularized into soul by way of “I’ll Take You There,” which showcased precisely where religious music became the sexiest groove on the planet. The first-act finale that brought the audience to its feet prompted Staples to exclaim, “The only thing that’s missing is the tent.”
But while Staples and her blazing band of white musicians and backup singers dance fluidly through the body and soul of American music, my favorite moments were the straight gospel rocking numbers, like “Tryin’ to Cross the Red Sea” and “I’m Too Close.” Staples opened the show with a weirdly speedy reading of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” but turned in her most beautiful performance with an almost note-for-note reproduction of “The Weight,” delivered just as The Staple Singers had performed it in Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz. There was a lot of history on display, but few straight lines running between the “amens” and the “hallelujahs.”
Which goes triple for Raitt. The daughter of a Broadway showman, Raitt broke into music in the blues-friendly early 1970s, playing kick-ass bottleneck guitar and covering otherwise unknown singer/songwriters. Still, she only became big when the new-wave kids embraced her. Her fervid popularity (on Sunday, the Bowl was full and rocking hard with oldsters) derives from all of the above. “I wrote that song when I was 42, two damn decades ago,” said Raitt about “Come to Me,” her good looks not adding up to the math.
The big hits of the evening came from her covers, like John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” and John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love,” both smart, eclectic, white songwriters who used R&B to make country music swing.
And the lines of influence blended everywhere. The crowd best loved anthems like “Real Man,” but the genius of Raitt only manifested itself for me when she mixed it up unexpectedly. “Have a Heart,” with its reverberating notes and voices, bent syncopations and dramatic time changes, was perfect in the Bowl and managed to bring together history and soul — even without a tent.