The Scene: Honestly, the weather couldn’t have been better for a night at the Botanic Gardens. There were only a few fluffy clouds in the sky, the sun was beaming down, and the temperature was hovering around the 80 degree mark. It was, quite simply, a gorgeous night for two musical legends to strut their stuff under the stars. When I walked up about 4:45 there were a hundred or so folks in line ahead of me and I settled in to enjoy the afternoon and chat with the people around me. There were first timers and long timers, parents with kids in tow and parents whose kids had long since moved out of the house to live on their own. There were Mavis Staples fans and Dr. John fans, but most importantly we were all music fans. Chatting about the difference in the line-up since Swallow Hill took over booking The Gardens from NIPP, and sharing stories from recent shows around town. If you’ve got wait in line for more than an hour to get into a show, The Botanic Gardens is the place to do it.
Mavis Staples: At about 6:45, fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, a golf cart pulled into view and started down the hill toward the stage carrying the one of the true legends of Gospel, Mavis Staples. She is a member of the first family of Gospel and daughter of Pops Staples, who wrote several of the songs that make up the great cannon of Gospel Music. As she adjusted the mic before starting to sing, the diminutive Staples joked with the crowd that she “is taller than they think I am.”
Backed by a great three piece band that blended the flavors of surf, blues and gospel to get the crowd grooving to the music, Staples took us on a journey through time as she belted out tunes by her father Pops, the Reverend Gary Davis, and other Gospel luminaries. Several times during her 60 minute set she bridged the gap between gospel and pop to the delight of the audience. Early in the set she broke out the Creedence Clearwater Revival gem “Wrote A Song For Everyone,” that featured prominently on her recent, Jeff Tweedy produced, album You Are Not Alone. A few songs later, when the first notes of the timeless The Band favorite “The Weight” rang out, she had every eye in the place glued to her as she begged us all to “take the load off Fanny, and put the load right on me.” As the last notes died away, she thanked The Band for having her and her family join them on the song during their Last Waltz way back in 1976.
As the set wound down, Staples dug deep into her soul for a rousing take on The Staple Singers classic “I’ll Take You There.” As dancers rushed to the stage and we all mouthed the lyrics, Staples pranced around the stage in fine form for a 71 year old woman. By the end she had everyone in the crowd on their feet clapping and singing at the top of their lungs. While her voice may not be everything it once was, she delivered a powerful set of inspired music that set the bar way up there for Dr. John.
Dr. John: After a half-hour or so break where the stagehands moved pianos and organs around and decorated them with skulls and tapestries, Dr. John and the Lower 911 took the stage in front of a rapid crowd of long time fans who crowded in front to get the best view. He was sharply dressed in a brightly colored suit, gigantic butterfly collared shirt and trademark wide brimmed hat with an array of beaded necklaces dangling from his neck.
The Doctor kicked things off with his version the Duke Ellington standard “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and really got the dancers swingin’ as he sang “doo wah, doo wah, doo wah.” A little later, the intro to his signature tune “Right Place, Wrong Time” elicited one of the biggest cheers of the night from the faithful, and people quickly moved up to fill the dance space and Dr. John kept them moving as he switched to guitar for the Earl King classic “Come On, (Let The Good Times Roll).”
Unfortunately, from there the set kinda took a turn for the worse. Not that it was “bad” per say, but I think he kinda lost the crowd for good 20 minutes or so as he and the Lower 911 ran through “Soulful Warrior,” “Do You Call That A Buddy,” and even “Mama Roux.” Things picked back up a little when he sucked the crowd in with the tender ode to a city in turmoil “My People Need A Second Line,” from his 2008 album City That Care Forgot. Unfortunately it was “too little too late” as he walked off stage and out into the night after closing the set with the next tune, “Lay My Burden Down.” As we watched his golf cart roll up the hill, lit only by a beautiful moon, I couldn’t help but wish he had found time to play “Such A Night,” the song that he contributed to The Band’s Last Waltz.
All in all it was a great night of music from two 71 year old Grammy winners at The Botanic Gardens, but the sheer power and inspirational nature of Mavis Staples set overpowered a more laid back and mellow performance from Dr. John.
Stage Presence: B
Set/Light Show: C