Bonnie Raitt and special guest Lucinda Williams
Live at the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville, Tennessee, May 29, 2022
Given the fact that any chance to see Lucinda Williams or Bonnie Raitt individually makes for an enticing opportunity, having these two legendary women on the same bill adds up to nothing less than a compelling concert that ought not be missed.
Considering the remarkable resumes each individual holds each on her own, that pronouncement proved true when Raitt and Williams teamed up for a double bill and sold out show at Knoxville’s historic Tennessee Theater on Sunday, May 29th.
Sadly, Williams’ portion of the evening seemed somewhat shaky. Having suffered a stroke in 2020, that was understandable, but watching her being helped on and offstage, made her unfortunate predicament appear all the more tragic. Once at the microphone, she barely moved, other than to simply sway with the music. Happily, she had a capable backing band that was able to carry things with an ideal advantage, a fact made evident by the opening offering “Can’t Let Go.” Nevertheless, given Williams’ low-key countenance, much of the exuberance that might have been there otherwise came across as simply stifled. Her song “Big Black Train,” which focuses on her battle with depression, simply underscored the sobriety.
Of course, it wasn’t that she repressed her delivery by design. A story about singing one of her songs at a karaoke bar made for a particularly humorous aside. Likewise, when she gave homage Raitt as her tour mate (“I’m real happy we were able to do this show together. She’s inspired me as an artist. She’s something else.”), it was that sweeter sentiment that prevailed.
Nevertheless, it was Raitt’s obvious radiance that dominated the evening. That, of course, is hardly surprising, considering the fact that she boasts a recording career that encompasses 50 years and a list of honors that includes practically every award imaginable. That strength and stamina is borne out by her stunning new album, Just Like That, and a backing band that helps her live up to her legacy. Comprised of Duke Levine on guitar and backing vocals, James “Hutch” Hutchinson on bass, drummer Ricky Fataar, and “newcomer” Glenn Patscha on keyboards, it underscored the largess that her legacy deserves. With a set of songs that featured any number of highlights past and present, Raitt’s verve and versatility was on display throughout.
That said, an honest expression of emotion was also evident as the evening progressed. Several songs were shared with a sentiment that was neither contrived nor milked for any added effect. Present circumstances — the twin tragedies of covid and gun violence— made one of the newer songs, “Livin’ for the Ones,” appear all the more poignant.
So too, it’s a mark of maturity that Raitt’s material resonates so well. She referred to her early fear of getting older, and ridiculed it in retrospect, making it clear that she would never want to be 40 again.
Of course that’s hardly a surprise considering that Raitt has always drawn from an age-old regimen, much of which was borne from the blues. When she sings “Angel from Montgomery,” it resonates with a particular poignancy. Now covering it in the wake of her friend John Prine’s passing, its sadder sentiments naturally rise to the fore. She could easily transition into the old woman who’s described in the song — with flies in her kitchen and nothing to do all day — were she not the relentless road warrior she remains today.
Other factors figured into her performance as well. The recent horror of the Robb Elementary school massacre in Texas and the scourge of the pandemic went unsaid, but it was obvious that both hung like a pall over the proceedings regardless. As a result, the sincerity of the sentiment she expressed couldn’t be denied. Yet, at the same time, Raitt remains cooly confident by virtue of both her prominence and presence. Her sturdy vocals, nimble slide guitar work and even a brief turn on piano continue to serve the songs well, and given the choice of material — a selection of standards that included “I Can’t Make You Love Me,”“Nick of Time” and “Something To Think About,” a number of tracks from the new album (“When We Say Goodnight,” “Blame It On Me,” “Love So Strong,” “Made Up My Mind”) and even some surprises such as John Lee Hooker’s “Black Cloud” and Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” — very few fans could have hoped for any more.
Even now, at the tender age of 72, Raitt still rules. This particular performance proved that and more.
Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.