It’s about time.
I mean, sure, it was good to see Bonnie Raitt and her band in town and on this stage, which she referred to as “hallowed ground,” on the face of it. But what I’m reporting is that Raitt’s show itself is now truly about time — and all things passing.
Like Rosanne Cash, a performer more often seen in this setting, Raitt has been grappling with the recent loss of both a famed father named John (musical theater legend John Raitt), as duly noted by the general press, and also, with less public to-do, of a mother dear to her.
New songs selected from her recent R&B (as opposed to blues) oriented Souls Alike album, and songs plucked from a multi-decade catalogue for this tour and this night, clearly had that context in mind. The titles tell the story: “I Don’t Want Anything to Change”, “I Will Not Be Broken”, and the older hit “Nick Of Time”, with its now more poignant talk of parents getting old and seeing you’ve aged too. (She dedicated it to them both.)
Raitt has never seemed more comfortable and free than she is now to take on varied song stylings — from pop balladry, to unmitigated blues and rock, to that new soul sound, and even surprise smatterings of fairly sophisticated jazz singing. Like a few adventures into contemporary hip-hop-influenced funk, the jagged jazz was an admirable challenge to a well-heeled, often settled audience that responded most to her smooth pop hits. It showed up especially in complex numbers written by her sax-playing band member, the singing songwriter Maia Sharp, such as “The Bed I Made”. In Raitt’s hands, this sort of number showed full well the “silver lining” that comes with those passing years.
“This is a song about getting it in middle age!” she noted in introducing the raunchy “Gnawin’ It”, which she wrote herself with bluesman Roy Rogers. “You know what I mean?” And “Women Be Wise”, the comic 1920s Sippie Wallace number Raitt has been singing for decades, was funny and wise-ass as ever — only now, it was slightly shocking to realize, Bonnie has grown into the part, becoming entirely more credible as the teasing voice of womanly experience.
The freedom time has brought her was nowhere evidenced as much in this show — not when she worked keyboards, not in the give-and-take with a polished band, not even in the varied but occasionally by-the-book singing — as when she picked up the blues guitar again, a wealth of experience laying behind the free-flying leads, runs cascading like water.
This show was also intended, in part, as a salute to the musicians and civilians of New Orleans, and there were some numbers and stories skewed in that direction, including a duet with opener Marc Broussard. In his own set, Broussard seemed to go over with the crowd, but he struck me as a rather limited, repetitive shouter.
As happens in Nashville — at least, for certain performers — the audience was loaded with songwriters whose tunes Raitt has interpreted over the years , and who got fond shout-outs from her all through the show. One of these, John Hiatt, joined her onstage for an unrehearsed duo turn on his “Thing Called Love”, which rolled out pretty well, even though Hiatt had to head toward adenoidal, upper Jerry Lewis “Hey, lady!” voice territory to sing in the key Raitt used.
The Ryman was decked out for this occasion in layers of curtains and towers of light-bending mylar, effectively turning the stage into one big lounge. With the accumulated experience, variety and ease Raitt brought to this show, that was just about the way it should be.
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