If there was ever an argument to be made that all the seats be removed from Sidney Harman Hall at the Christopher Cohan Center, the combined energy and rhythmic punch of Mavis Staples and Joan Osborne would be it. The predominantly 65+ crowd literally squirmed in their seats Tuesday night, and in the end some audience members vacated their chairs altogether to dance as two aging, but still vibrant, stars took ownership of the stage.
To use the word “aging” seems inappropriate here, because both Osborne and Staples have been exquisitely re-tuned with time, in such a way that they sound almost more soulful than before.
Disappointingly, the two singers did not spend much time on stage together, but each shone in their own distinct style. Osborne went on first in a simple black dress and grooved through a short but astonishingly versatile set, beginning with a jazzy, bass-infused cover of The Temptations’ “Smiling Faces Sometimes,” exhibiting deep, sultry vocals evocative enough to elicit whistles of appreciation.
The set then bounced between moods while maintaining its grooving bass line (thanks to bassist Jeff Turmes). The stage was illuminated in blue for “Where We Start,” one of Osborne’s delicate lullabies, for which she exhibited sweet, breathy vocals, but quickly turned orange for her heavy-hitting soul anthems, revealing her grittiness and yodeler-esque range.
In the livelier moments, lead guitarist Rick Holmstrom almost stole the show, and actually did steal the spotlight, by evoking his inner Eric Clapton (with Slash undertones) and setting his instrument afire with the edgiest of bluesy solos, as if determined to wear out his entire fretboard by show’s end.
Osborne herself appeared to enjoy the spectacle, as she swayed and twisted to the beat from head to toe as her grin widened. She quickly reclaimed her musical authority by breaking out her Grammy-nominated pop hit, “One of Us,” followed by the incredibly upbeat soul track, “Rhymes,” which served as a fitting transition to Staples’ portion of the night.
Staples, who is lively as ever in her mid-70s, came out with her background singers, Donny Gerrard and Vicki Randle, and the trio tag-teamed the Staples family original, “If You’re Ready,” which of course the whole auditorium was. Staples then professed to not be entirely sure about the city in which she was performing (“What is it? San Lucy?”), before she emphatically revealed her mission to “give you some love, joy, inspiration and positive vibrations,” just as she and her family have for more than 60 years.
Staples does not possess quite the range that Osborne does, but she made use of every bit of her vocal ability. “Respect Yourself” showed off both a clean, polished yet powerful sound and some serious scat skills, and her signature gravelly wails were liberally interspersed in nearly every tune.
She works with humanitarian purpose, too. “Listen!” she said halfway through the set, strutting out to the furthest point downstage. “I was there in 1965, and I’m still here,” referring to the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. She went on to belt out one of her father’s works, “Freedom Highway,” a single hand-clapping, shoulder-shaking blues-gospel stanza written about exactly that.
Christina Edwardsen, an audience member all the way from Visalia, California, was impressed by the passion Staples expressed.
“It’s a great thing when someone gets up there and pours their heart out,” she said.
Staples was not finished exuding passion by that point, but she did invite Osborne back onstage to share in it with her by covering The Band classic “The Weight.” Staples provided the throaty body of the lyrics while Osborne’s voice flitted softly around the edges, creating an unlikely pairing but a beautifully harmonious effect.
Then finally something wonderful happened. The onlookers disregarded their chairs, forgot their ages and swayed until the two timeless talents had nothing left to play.