MOBILE, Alabama — “I’m emotionally a mess,” Bonnie Raitt told a packed house Friday night at the Mobile Saenger Theatre. “I just don’t want this tour to end.”
They could sympathize. To judge from their energetic appreciation throughout the show, most of them didn’t even want the night to end. And why would they? Mess or not, Raitt seemed to have all the blessings a musician could ask for, and a desire to share them freely.
The tone and expressiveness of her slide guitar work would be the envy of any six-string gunslinger. Her voice, likewise, had the all the purity in person that her recordings have promised. She had an awesome backing band, and, 41 years after the release of her first album, exuded an energy that showed she wasn’t blowing smoke when she said she was having a great time.
Even opener Maia Sharp had to refer to her as “my absurdly talented buddy.”
Sharp herself got the night off to a good start, engaging the audience with a conversational approach to her well-crafted songs. She drew applause with a comment that her trio, featuring guitarist Linda Taylor and cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith, was there to prove that “you don’t need a bass player or a drummer or even a guy.”
But it does help to have absurdly talented friends with big, big, voices, and Raitt drew the first standing ovation of the night just by walking out to join Sharp for “I Don’t Want Anything to Change.”
“That’s the hottest thing ever,” Sharp said after Raitt’s greeting. “I have Bonnie Raitt’s lipstick on my cheek.”
The friendly spirit would last through the evening, with Sharp returning several times during Raitt’s set to play sax or sing harmony. A particular standout was “Angel From Montgomery,” which Raitt opened with an a cappella verse, freshening up a familiar, beloved song before her band and Sharp joined in.
Raitt kept up the conversational feel of the night, saying early on that “it’s Halloween week. Anything can happen,” and adding later that because the tour was nearly over, “we’re going to be pulling out all kinds of things.” They did, too, ranging all the way back to that first album for the John Beach/Sippie Wallace song “Women Be Wise,” covering the late-‘90s Bob Dylan song “Million Miles,” and tipping her hat to Denise LaSalle with “A Man Sized Job.”
She praised Mobile’s character, saying she’d sampled a little of it while biking around downtown earlier in the day, and more than once praised the acoustics of “this gorgeous theater.”
That theater was filled to the rafters, the first time in a long time that’s happened for a pop show, and even the star wasn’t taking that for granted. “I’m really glad we sold this puppy out in this economy,” Raitt said. “Thank you so much.”
Raitt has a history as a social activist, and she didn’t let the looming presidential vote go unremarked. “I know it’s an auction this year instead of an election. Something’s got to change,” she remarked at one point. Later, on a more upbeat note, she urged her listeners, “Don’t forget to vote, don’t forget to vote, don’t give up.”
Otherwise, Raitt kept her comments mostly to musical matters, mixing hits such as “Thing Called Love” and “Something to Talk About” with surprises and fan favorites, and capping a 90-minute set with a big four-song encore.
Her fans stuck with her through every turn. Even for the biggest stars, audiences sometimes erode as the hour grows late and the desire to hear the last note gives way to the urge to beat the rush. But this night saw remarkably few defections as the end drew near.
There was no mystery about it. In introducing “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” Raitt had remarked that Adele’s version of the song had brought her some new listeners. Then she gave an emotional reading of the song that showed, once again, just how good she is at making people love her.
It’s possible to see display of talent and still come away feeling like nothing has actually been shared. The hallmark of Raitt’s show was her generosity, and her willingness to make clear that appreciation is a two-way street.
“I can’t tell you what it means to me to have this loyalty,” she said, near the end of the evening.
She didn’t have to: She spent the whole performance showing it.