Concert Review – Bonnie Raitt and Mavis Staples at the Cape Cod Melody Tent

On a crisp and breezy summer night in late June, Bonnie Raitt, still a fine singer at 62, closed the current leg of her tour  in Hyannis, MA at the Cape Cod Melody Tent. Throughout the excellent show, Raitt spent ample time slinking her way through songs both old and new, recognizable hits and ones that should be from her excellent new CD Slipstream.

She kicked off the evening working the crowd in to the feel good groove of “Used To Rule The World,” the opening cut on the new album, before launching into the reggae mood of “Right Down The Line,” her excellent cover of the Gerry Rafferty song.

The night quickly became a showcase for the new music, some of the blueiest of Raitt’s career, and her first new music in seven years. In addition to the opening numbers, Raitt performed a beautiful cover of Bob Dylan’s “Million Miles,” Joe Henry’s “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” and “Marriage Made In Hollywood,” co-written by her ex-husband Michael O’Keefe.

The highlight of the new music was “Not Cause I Wanted To,” co-wrriten by country songwriter Al Anderson. A pensive ballad, the crowd became transfixed on Raitt’s emotive vocal. The tasteful and quiet arrangement helped too, as it gave the song appropriate room to breathe. A classic in the making, it was a show-stopping moment, and proof there are artists out there still willing to bring quality songs to their fans.

Raitt also turned back the clock to her iconic classics, turning in fine versions of “Something To Talk About,” “Love’s Sneaking Up On You,” and John Hiatt’s  “Thing Called Love,” complete with her usual energy and gusto. And with the mark of an acute songstress, they all sounded as good as they did more than twenty years ago, if not better. (The only hit she didn’t sing was “Nick of Time”).

Having never seen Raitt live before, I was unaware of her easy going nature and sense of humor. Between songs she spoke lovingly of the memories she has of being a little girl, peaking down the aisles of the very tent she was performing in (although, as she noted, it’s been moved just slightly from its original location).

Raitt came of age in Massachusetts, getting her start as a musician in Cambridge, the city bordering Boston. She didn’t talk about her Cambridge connection, but through memories with her father, her love of Massachusetts became very clear. She was even able to visit Martha’s Vineyard  during this brief stay.

She also made sure to interact with the audience, even remarking at a fan’s sign requesting a couple of songs. She was amazed at this person’s level of Raitt knowledge, requesting two songs she deemed “obscure” (she never said what they were), quipping that she wished she still knew them.

At another point, during the encore, Raitt became somewhat political, taking a stance against the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant (in nearby Plymouth, MA), advocating for it’s permanent closer. A very hot-button issue (the workers have recently been on strike), it got the crowd going and forced security to evict someone. This semi-rant led into her Nick of Time hit “Have A Heart,” and was supposed to infuse the song with added power.

I’m not one for artists using their platform to spiel political discourse, and in the post-Maines era, it’s proven not to be a smart move. But it hardly took away from the  music-centric evening. Raitt often proved a mutual admiration society with her band, some of whom had been with her for more than 20 years.

One of the newest additions is noted keyboardist Mike Finnigan, known for his work with Jimi Hendrix, Manhattan Transfer, and Crosby, Stills & Nash. Raitt paused long enough to give Finnigan a solo number, the deepest slice of authentic blues heard all evening.

Moments like this gave Raitt a chance to display her guitar prowess, an underrated talent in the music world. Throughout the evening she switched between many guitars, both acoustic and electric. Her playing abilities were as intoxicating as her singing, and together proved an ultimate package.

The aforementioned encore proved another highlight as Raitt brought out her secret weapon (and only guitar-less number), “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” A song deeply engrained within us, Raitt infused it with new meaning by slowing it down even further, thus letting the emotion sink in. She closed with a spirited Elvis Presley cover.

Staples, the opening act, got the party rolling with her throaty mix of Gospel and southern preaching. Like a female God, she emoted from the deepest fibers of her soul when talking about the Civil Rights Movement and marches from Montgomery to Selma through chants of “I will not turn around!”

Her somewhat lengthy (for this venue, which has a noise curfew) hour long set also included a lovely tribute to Levon Helm and a showcase of her siblings, the Staples Singers (Cleeotha, Pervis, and Yvonne). While not as famous, they proved just as good  and accompanied Mavis all evening.

But the highlight of her set came when Raitt made a surprise appearance, joining Staples on stage for a cover I wasn’t expecting to hear – The Carter Family / Nitty Gritty Dirt Band classic “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Unaware of its connection to the Staples Singers, this came as a shock out of nowhere, yet was one of the night’s most enjoyable moments.

Overall, it was fabulous night of entertainment from two extremely classy individuals who seem better with age.  It also didn’t hurt that the sold out show was filled with music lovers (mostly the Baby Boomer generation), not young adults looking to drink beer and raise a Red Solo Cup. Being surrounded by people who not only appreciated but understood good music turned an ordinary evening into something very special.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again – it’s often a curse, growing up with two in the round theaters practically in your backyard. The intimacy of the performances is easily unmatched when placed on bigger stages in the Boston. The closeness between singer and fan can’t be found most other places, and I’m grateful to have grown up with The Cape Cod Melody Tent and South Shore Music Circus playing a critical role in my musical education. And, of course, for making nights like this a reality.

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