Last Night: Bonnie Raitt at Hard Rock Live
Thursday, Nov 13
Hard Rock Live
The people who show up at Bonnie Raitt shows these days are white, married, and between the ages of 40 and 60. The only teenagers I saw were two blond chicks that sat next to me and left after the third song. There were also two twentysomething black lesbians in the audience. Aside from myself, these were the only twentysomethings in view, and the only black folks period.
From the stage, Raitt never comments on the whiteness of her audience, though she seems very aware of their age. Early in the set, after a blazing, bloozey “Talk To Me,” she said: “The best part of getting to be this age is not sweating the small stuff.” Big cheers — people here know what she means. Then, to fewer cheers: “Still sweating the big stuff, though.”
Raitt made it pretty clear what she meant by “big stuff” over the next few songs. She doesn’t worry about love, doesn’t worry about dying — but singing “I Will Not Be Broken,” an eerie swamp song built around sparse, desolate guitar lines and fishing metaphors, she dedicated the proceedings to the still-homeless from New Orleans, and riffed modestly about climate change. The social responsibility rap has never been as offensive from Raitt as from some of her contemporaries (say, Don Henley or Carly Simon) — probably because of all them dues she’s paid. Starting as a Boston folkie and toiling away the decades as an electric rural blues mama more interested in that big American sound than that big American paycheck, you always got the sense that she meant what she said, and not just for the moment. She’d also apparently invited a lot of SoFla’s Everglade-conservationist biggies to the show’s front-row and arranged for tables in the lobby to let them to pass out their literature, which makes you figure her involvement might be more than a matter of rich-white-lib guilt.
But it’s not her social responsibility rap that makes or breaks Raitt’s show: it is, as you’d figure, the music. Raitt seems to make her noise effortlessly, and on record, her ease too often makes for an overly casual, almost AOR vibe. Live, her facility has the opposite effect. The whole show would have gotten a boost from increased volume — during the concert, I found I could talk to my date without raising my voice — but it didn’t matter much. Good blues and gutbucket country are commanding genres, and most performers are either overpowered by them (Janis) or else are so worried about getting swept away that they suffocate the music beneath its own formal earmarks (Dr. John). Raitt has neither problem; it seems like she’s spent all her life chasing this music, and now she’s hell-bent on sharing the wonderful things she’s found.
One of those wonderful things is John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery,” which Raitt’s been performing for years and is finally getting to the bottom of. Her version’s always been affecting; on Wednesday, it was a revelation. When she sang “If dreams were thunder/And lightning was desire/This old house, it would have burned down/A long time ago,” the way she enunciated the word “old” and the phrase “long time ago” was almost preternaturally expressive. It made you think you didn’t really understand age or the passage of time until you’d heard her sing those words. There were a lot of years in that voice.
Raitt’s been praised over the years for her guitar playing as much as for her singing, and she’s a very good player — when she plays lead, her melodic constructions are simple but unpredictable, occasionally perverse, and altogether compelling. But her singing has steadily improved since her 1971 debut, and now it’s so sure and communicative that it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. Her vocal cords immediately own any song they wrap themselves around. At the concert, she made new things happen on even her own songs — “Don’t Advertise Your Man,” from her first record, has never been so smoky or certain — and she made you think you’d never heard her cover versions sung correctly before. Listening to her take on James Taylor’s “Rainy Day Man,” your might figure Taylor would have been better off letting Raitt sing all his songs.
As a physical instrument, the voice is maybe a little less supple than it was when she was younger, but back then it was a little too supple anyway — a good instrument for a party, not well-suited to pathos. But the voice has turned from sapling to redwood in the almost four decades she’s been putting it through the paces, and if from time to time it seems on the verge of breakdown — as on “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” her sad, lovely first encore, during which she let loose the only certifiably ugly note of the night — at least the spots are well-chosen. It’s doesn’t sound like her voice is breaking; what you hear breaking is her heart.
There aren’t a lot of singers like Bonnie Raitt left out there; honest, skilled, smart servants of an American popular music that sustains them. Dan Hicks springs to mind, but he’s not as good. Melissa Ethridge is too infantile. Dr. John’s boring. John Lee Hooker showboats, and B. B.’s getting on. But getting on isn’t too bad, and Raitt’s a lot younger than the King. Introducing “Nick of Time” (another snoozer on record, another heartbreaker live), she quipped: “I wrote this song in 1989 — when I was worried about turning 40.” Then she laughed, and so did the audience. Presumably, she’s not too worried about turning 60, and from the sound of it, neither are her fans. They’ll all be around a while.
Here’s “Angel From Montgomery” from 1995 — these days, Bonnie sings it even better:
--Brandon K Thorpe