Live Review: Mavis Staples, Bonnie Raitt @ Darling Harbour Theatre

12 April 2023 | 10:42 am | David James Young

An unforgettable performance by two outstanding legends!

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Two weeks after Mavis Staples last visited Australia, the world completely shut down. At 80 years old, it was understandably feared that this may have been the very last chance we got to spend an evening with this certified soul legend. Thankfully, the last surviving Staples Singer has made her way back down under at 83. “I'm a soldier, y'all!” she crows at the end of Fight – and boy, is she right. When most people her age spend their days staring out the window, Staples still reaches in deep and delivers a heartfelt performance. Her voice is shaky and croaky and takes a minute to warm up – but the passion and the conviction do not wane for a second. Whether she's delving into her own catalogue or whipping out fun covers like her vibrating take on Talking Heads' Slippery People, you can both see and feel how much performing still means to Staples after over half a century up on stage. 45 minutes doesn't feel like nearly enough time in the presence of such greatness, but it's worth taking stock of how lucky we are to have time with her still at all. Every last moment counts.

If consistency is key, consider Bonnie Raitt an expert locksmith. The Grammy-winning veteran has been enthralling Australian audiences since 1992, all with little more beyond her powerful voice and her virtuoso blues guitar playing. She's never needed many whistles and bells to make her shows feel special – just hand her a six-string and have a tight band on call, and she'll have the crowd enraptured just like that. Tonight, her first Sydney show in six years proves to be no exception to this. It's an understated affair, with only a few lighting changes and a spotlight accompanying Raitt and co. during the set. It's this straightforward nature, however, that plays to Raitt's strengths – she can allow for songs to speak for themselves, whether it's the tasteful restraint and close vocal harmony of Nick of Time or the swinging groove of Something to Talk About.

Raitt has lost some close friends since she was last here. One of the more recent ones was Renee Geyer, who passed at the start of 2023. Raitt spoke to the audience of attending a memorial service for the late singer and reflected on her passing with Livin' for the Ones – its resolute chorus, “Keep livin' for the ones/The ones who didn't make it”, ringing powerfully true. Another untimely loss that Raitt touches upon is country legend John Prine, who was one of the first noted victims of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-2020.

Of course, Raitt has been singing Prine's beloved Angel of Montgomery for nearly 50 years at this point – but now, on her first tour here since Prine's death, the song stirs even deeper and more resonant emotions. Through watering eyes at its conclusion, Raitt thanks the audience for loving both Prine and his song as much as she and the band do. How could it ever be otherwise?

For as much as tonight is about taking stock and looking back, Raitt also finds the time to contrast that with a little fun. She's playful in her storytelling and surprising in her covers – delivering a one-two of 80s classics during the set with INXS' Need You Tonight and Talking Heads' Burning Down the House. While neither is the kind of song you'd normally associate with Raitt's style of music, her husky vocals and the band's smooth, slinking arrangement make the translation a relatively seamless one. After bringing the house down with a powerhouse performance of her signature song I Can't Make You Love Me and a beaming rendition of One Belief Away, there's one thing left to do: Play the blues. She invites Mavis Staples' guitarist Rick Holstrom out on stage, and everybody jams on B.B. King's Never Make You Move Too Soon to send the audience home with a smile on their faces. We have, again, been collectively unlocked by Raitt's consistency, her heart and her evergreen talent.