No umbrellas, no problem.
Sunday’s second half of the 46th Freihofers Saratoga Jazz Festival felt as warm-summery as Saturday felt cool-swampy, when fans dodged puddles deep enough to swim across. No, no, I’m goofing, and with relief.
Bonnie Raitt closed the festival before 8:30 p.m., the time shows once started at Saratoga Performing Arts Center.
Fans left happy, but questions lingered: “What is jazz?” “Who should play jazz festivals?” “Why can’t I shoot phone photos and videos?”
Raitt steamrolled all that with top quality, heartfelt music, demonstrating perfectly the need to invite non-jazz-purists into the fold to ensure such events continue.
Before that twilight hour rang with Raitt’s blues, rock and soul, Sunday seemed a sort of miniature of Saturday events. Sunday was nine hours of music in nine performances versus ten and half hours of music in 12 performances Saturday; and symmetrical moments emerged.
Bonnie Raitt brought maybe her best-ever band to the festival, with a strong batch of songs inspired in part by the death-by-Covid of friend and songwriting mentor John Prine. After 50 years onstage as a dedicated proponent of Black blues, R&B and folk-influenced pop, and kinfolk in the crowd, she knew what to do.
The mid-tempo rocker “Made Up Mind” opened, both her voice and slide-guitar playing impressively strong; and she stayed for a while with straight-ahead rock tunes, including new ones from 2022’s “Just Like That” album, before digging later back into blues and R&B.
On tour most of a year since the Covid eclipse, her band is pros and pals: guitarist Duke Levine, keyboardist Glen Patscha, drummer Ricky Fataar and bassist Hutch Hutchinson, with an occasional offstage percussion assist.
Everything was polished and properly punchy, or soothing. Raitt concentrated more on playing lots of songs than stretching them out. Her slide guitar breaks and solos by Levine and Patscha made their point quickly; then they were on to the next.
After the contemporary “Made Up Mind” came the older “Used to Rule the World” and John Hiatt’s “No Business,” then “Blame It On Me,” her favorite from “Just Like That,” the hit “Nick of Time,” and a Bobby Rush deep blues “A Million Miles.” These were fine, but things got more serious with “Just Like That.” a Grammy Song of the Year winner inspired by Prine and telling a mother’s tale of her late son’s donated heart saving a life.
Now she was deep, and life-or-death tunes stood tall among hit crowd-pleasers, the rollicking vintage “Something to Talk About” setting up the somber, percolating new “Ones Who Didn’t Make It,” for example.
She rode the reggae bounce of “Have a Heart” with an extra fine slide solo, then made it through Prine’s heartbreaking “Angel From Montgomery,” a staple of her shows since 1971.
Unlike a night-time show, Raitt could actually see her audience, and this seemed to inspire and empower her. The skill impressed, but the feel was real, and that mattered more.
All the artists playing the main on Sunday required that fans not take phone photos or videos, prompting some grumbles on-site and online. Though I’ve photographed shows for decades myself for publications and websites, I’m with the artists here: Who wants to look out at an audience and see a sea of cell phones blocking faces?
As to “What’s jazz?” and “Who should play jazz festivals?” my short answer is “Anybody who’s good enough.” This festival flew by on the wings of top talent. My faves: Emmet Cohen, Cory Wong, Hiromi’s Sonicwonder, Samara Joy, Jupiter Okwess, and Bonnie Raitt. Yeah, Bonnie Raitt.