The Britt grounds turned into Happy Hill Friday night with good vibes from two legends.
Mavis Staples and her band brought something like an open-air revival, and John Hiatt just looked like a man having almost too much fun.
Staples, who's been doing this since 1957, strolled onto the stage in black pants and top as her band laid down a beat that would become Funkadelic's "Can You Get to That." After a turn at the Buffalo Springfield hit "For What It's Worth," Staples declared, "We've come this evening to bring you some joy."
"I Like the Things About Me" set the tone, with Staples singing, "I looked in the mirror, and what did I see? / A brand new image of the same old me / Oh but now I wonder why should I be surprised / I like the things about me ... that I once despised."
The Staple Singers hit the Top 40 eight times between 1971 and 1975, including two No. 1 singles, "I'll Take You There" and "Let's Do It Again." Her increased visibility in recent years has been helped by fans like Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who produced her recent "You Are Not Alone."
In the early '60s, the Staple Singers were maybe the closest thing the Civil Rights movement had to an official soundtrack. Staples referenced that history and its spiritual roots in songs such as "Creep Along Moses," the sweet "Celestial Shores or Holy Ghost" and the rousing "Freedom Highway," which her father, "Pops" Staples, wrote for the 1962 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.
"Let's do it Again" was, incongruously, a sexy ballad in the middle of all this. Then Staples wrapped her portion of the show with a big raveup of 1971's "I'll Take You There" that had here singing scat and boasting, "We ain't tired yet!" Oh, and this lady can still scream.
John Hiatt seems incapable these days of writing a bad song or turning in a bad performance. In a white straw hat, jeans and a suitcoat, the 60-year-old singer kicked off his show with "Drive South" from his 1988 album "Slow Turning."
That's a theme of sorts. Although he grew up in Indianapolis, Ind., Hiatt went to Nashville to write songs at 18, and Tennessee and Alabama and Dixie generally provide settings for many of his songs.
"Train to Birmingham," which came next, is not only a train song, it's a song about the south, and a down-on-your-luck song in the tradition of great old southern ballad singers like Jimmy Rodgers.
Hiatt remains of the most prolific songwriters around, putting out quality album after quality album, CDs packed with songs that rock hard and/or touch your heart, take your pick.
In his live shows Hiatt has the enthusiasm of a kid playing his first battle of the bands. Friday he ranged from the moody "Adios to California" from 2011's "Dirty Jeans and Mudslide Hymns" to the joyous affirmation of "We're Alright Now" from 2012's "Mystic Pinball."
He sang a lurching, anguished "Cry Love" as it grew dark and the lights came up. That was followed by "Blue Can't Even Find Me," also from "Mystic Pinball," a tongue-in-cheek, postmodern blues beyond the blues ("Wife keeps pushin' buttons / Spend all day starin' at a little screen / I'm feelin' invisible The blues can't even find me ... ").
It doesn't hurt that Hiatt always seems to be surround by top musicians, guys like Ry Cooder and Sonny Landreth. The Combo, led by lead guitarist Doug Lancio and the rock-ribbed rhythms of bassist Nathan Gehri and longtime Hiatt drummer Kenneth Blevins, was tight as can be.
A rocking "Bite Marks" showed Hiatt's humorous side ("Bite marks baby, out of control / You sink 'em in and take a chunk of my soul / Bite marks baby, up and down my mind / You know you really chewed me up this time ... ").
It's a bit of a mystery that Hiatt's record sales have never come up to the level of his standing with his fans and within the music community. His songs have been covered by artists as different from each other as Bob Dylan, Ronnie Milsap, Suzy Bogguss, Iggy Pop and the Neville Brothers. See him and that's understandable. There's something just universal about these songs.
At a reviewer's punkin time, Hiatt was musically raging about how he hates to see those big rock stars break up perfectly good guitars. He has so many great songs it's impossible these days for him to do everybody's favorites, but I had a feeling I would miss "Thing Called Love," the Hiatt song that keyed Bonnie Raitt's monster comback album "Nick of Time."
It's an embarassment of riches. No doubt that's part of the reason for his current tag line about aging. He's claiming that 60 is the new 12, and playing like it too.
Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.