Raitt and Staples: Soulful and Sexy at the Wellmont

There’s something spectacular about a woman who can confidently lead a stage full of world-class rock musicians, rivet a sold-out house, and simultaneously come off soulful and sexy without resorting to salacious behavior or skimpy clothes. When you multiply that by two, you get Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples, who both performed at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair last night. The two women clearly have an affinity for each other (Staples called Raitt her “baby sister” and Raitt said that Staples is her “hero”), and are cut from that same cloth of class-act women whose music and delivery has only increased in beauty and value through the decades.

I don’t think you could ever call Staples an opening act, but she thoroughly warmed up the audience, who were on their feet cheering from the start. The Chicago rhythm and blues gospel luminary has the kind of voice that you feel in the marrow of your bones, and don’t forget anytime soon after you’ve heard it. At 72 years old, she has more power and depth than performers half her age, and easily projected her sound into every nook and cranny of the venue. Her message was one of “joy, happiness, inspiration and good vibrations,” and her indomitable spirit filled the room. Whether testifying for the recently passed Levon Helm (I could swear he was onstage when Staples belted out The Weight), or calling forth the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King (yeah, he was there, too), the civil rights activist made it clear that her work on this planet is not nearly done. Rather than retiring, Staples — whose voice has been sampled by some of the biggest selling hip-hop artists, including Salt ‘N’ Pepa, Ice Cube and Ludacris — pointed out that she just keeps learning new songs and finding new collaborations. Her latest album,You Are Not Alone, was produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.

As if seeing one living American legend wasn’t enough of a thrill, last night’s line up delivered two. First off, it’s important to note that it takes a certain amount of conviction to take the stage after Mavis Staples — Raitt gets snaps just for that. But the gutsy, feisty 9-time Grammy winner gracefully brought her slide guitar swagger out, and demonstrated that she is clearly in a class of her own.

While Raitt has a repertoire of songs that goes back to the early ’70, there is nothing dated or retro about her music. Sometimes, with rockers of a certain vintage, there’s a certain, well, 401K-tour feel to their performances. Raitt, however, is as fresh and beautiful as she ever was, although — amusingly — she did reapply her lipstick on stage several times during the concert, making comments about the trials and tribulations of womanly maintenance, and forbade the taking of any photos from the audience (thus explaining the promotional shot here). But when Raitt sang her songs of love and heartbreak, they felt completely contemporary and relevant. Her exquisitely emotional rendition of John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery — which she performed partly a cappella — demonstrated that her voice and delivery have only improved as the years have progressed. Like her audience, Raitt’s artistry has benefitted from her life experiences. And her new work, off the album Slipstream, promises to build her musical legacy further.

Rock on, sisters, and thanks for the music.

By the way, did anyone see Bonnie Raitt strolling around Montclair yesterday? A reliable source told Baristanet that the red-haired rocker enjoyed some down time in town, chatting with folks, signing autographs and even getting a haircut.

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