BY MELISSA RUGGIERI
By the end of the weekend, the three-month “Solid Soul” tour will reach its finale.
The 31-date outing featuring Mavis Staples and Joan Osborne has played college campuses and performing arts centers from Davis, Calif., to Keene, N.H., and on a soggy, mucky Wednesday night, pulled into the Ferst Center at Georgia Tech.
How fortunate for anyone who was able to witness these two live wires.
Staples is a diminutive dynamo and Osborne a sultry songbird and whether they were performing their separate sets or a joint version of “The Weight,” they captivated.
The Ferst Center crowd filled only about half of the venue (the abominable weather an hour before show time may well have kept some folks home), but those there knew they were witnessing something special.
Osborne launched the show by patting a beat on the body of her acoustic guitar, eyes locked with guitarist Rick Holmstrom, and edged into “Shake Your Hips.”
Her 45-minute set recalled her 1995 debut album, “Relish,” with a hauntingly beautiful “St. Teresa” and a slightly gospel-ized take on Osborne’s only mainstream hit, “One of Us,” but also touched on her time with The Dead (she sang on the band’s 2003 tour) with an introspective read on “Brokedown Palace.”
Even when Osborne wasn’t singing, she conveyed her intent with an intense gaze and a few shoulder rolls – a move that Staples joked she wanted to learn.
Osborne’s soaring voice ranged from gritty to honeyed and imbued her songs with a slinky sexiness. The mellifluous “Work on Me” from last year’s “Love and Hate” album shares a lyrical blueprint with George Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” while her set-ending “I Can’t Let it Get Me Down” – with a “Georgia on My Mind” insert – was all about the hip-shimmying and tambourine shaking.
Osborne shared Staples’ band for the tour and it was apparent that both singers have an affectionate rapport with them.
Holmstrom, in particular, deserved the spotlight he frequently shared as he squeezed notes from his guitar and unleashed clean, elegant solos that were deceptive in their simplicity.
Staples and a pair of background singers hustled onto the stage as Jeff Turmes plucked the snaking bass line of The Staple Sisters classic, “If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me),” an intro that excited Staples so much, she started to sing before she reached the mic.
During her hour-long set, Staples reminded not only of her insanely powerful voice, but her tremendous vocal control.
She’s a singing storyteller, someone who clenches her fists, scrunches her eyes shut and claps with purpose whether she’s singing The Talking Heads’ “Slippery People,” bopping through “I’ll Take You There” or sitting on a padded stool, her feet barely touching the ground, for the slow-burning “You Are Not Alone.”
In between songs, Staples, 76, displayed the kind of comedic skills that cannot be taught as she joked with her new “cousins” in the audience, backed away to take a sip of water and christened Turmes with the nickname “Dr. Love.”
She also lamented the upcoming end to the tour (“We’ll keep in touch – we’re a family now,” she said of the band, and she’s probably right) and promised that, “We’ve come to bring you some joy, some happiness…inspiration and some positive vibrations.”
Staples obviously kept that promise as she barreled through “Respect Yourself,” which was definitely delivered as a command, and shuffled sideways across the stage, digging deep for her belter voice, during “Wade in the Water.”
The all-hands-on-deck version of “The Weight” – you might recall that Staples performed part of the song in “The Last Waltz” movie – was the kind that not only got under your skin, but into your veins.
It’s perfectly appropriate that a tour with these two robust singers was named Solid Soul.
But next time, go with Solid Gold.
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