When Bonnie Raitt sat down at the piano beside keyboardist Mike Finnigan to play the title track off her Grammy winning 1989 commercial breakthrough “Nick of Time,” there was such an arms-in-the-air eruption from the crowd you’d have thought the Panthers scored a touchdown.
The crowd for Raitt’s return to Ovens Auditorium Wednesday was subdued and respectful (though obviously not dead), even following the instructions to put away their phones and enjoy the show in real time, per the pre-show announcement. Maybe that’s why their response wasn’t soft golf claps between juggled drinks and electronics. And honestly, it was nice not to have 30 phones bobbing in the air at any given time during the show (although it made it hard to take notes) – she did allow photos during the final song.
That attentiveness was reflected on stage as well. Less a “show” and more of a performance, Raitt and her band were of course supremely rehearsed (although with the caliber of musicians on stage little rehearsal is necessary), but it wasn’t the kind of rehearsed that results in the same show night after night. Her banter seemed genuine as did her interpretations of the songs, which change to some degree in order and choice nightly.
Following the California Honeydrops (the hand-picked Bay Area jazz and blues-inspired funk and soul act who have been on the tour since March), Raitt sauntered on stage in a leather and sparkle accented blue top and straight legged slacks looking, at least from the crowd, as if she hadn’t aged since “Nick of Time.”
Although she wrote a number of songs on her new album “Dig in Deep” (like the moving “All Alone with Something to Say,”), she often chose the standout covers like her opener, INXS’ “Need You Tonight” and later a rollicking version of Los Lobos’ “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes.” But Raitt is as much an interpreter of ongs as she is a vocalist and slide guitar player, both of which were spot-on. Has she ever known a bad note? She chose to honor her influences and mentors throughout the night playing Sippie Wallace’s “Woman Be Wise,” Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman,” and letting Finnigan take lead on B.B. King’s “Don’t Answer the Door.”
Although hits like “Something To Talk About” and “Thing Called Love” were crowd favorites that had folks dancing in the aisles, it was just as fun to see Raitt and the band breakout of the blues and adult contemporary by taking on spiritual world music with Zimbabwean musician/activist Oliver Mtukudzi’s “Hear Me Now” and the encore of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House.”
Of course, Raitt couldn’t leave without belting out “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” which she sang slow and purposeful as if to demonstrate the depth of the ache in the lyrics.
Raitt may technically be retirement age – she turns 67 on election day – but she shows no desire to pull back from the road. Her passion for playing and her audience’s passion for her playing remains vibrant nearly five decades into her career. And the show served as a reminder of why she’s remains such a revered presence today.