With guests who included Jackson Browne, Bruce Hornsby and Bryan Adams, Bonnie Raitt undoubtedly captured an exciting television special and live album, even if the proceedings tended to drag toward the end of her nearly three-hour performance Tuesday at the Paramount Theatre.
But with her trademark honesty, she faced the sometimes intrusive mechanics of such a production by building them right into her act. She piped the talkback between the recording truck and herself into the house sound system. She stopped songs midway and started over, even doing second takes of performances. Serving as emcee for the evening was her record producer, Don Was.
“I’ve waited 25 years to make a live album,” Raitt told the crowd. “I thought it would be a good idea before menopause.”
The capacity crowd clearly didn’t mind. They applauded the second version of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” with, if possible, even greater enthusiasm than the first. They sat pin-drop still for two consecutive takes of “My Opening Farewell,” a song she and Browne sang together, from his first album.
It was an extraordinary evening. Raitt ranged across the full breadth of her remarkable gifts — from driving, slashing bottleneck guitar rock to deep country blues, buoyant pop and aching, plaintive ballads — liberally sprinkled with marvelous matchups with special guests.
She and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds romped through his “I Believe I’m in Love,” trading walloping instrumental verses on harmonica and bottleneck. Rhythm and blues greats Charles Brown and Ruth Brown, who served as the evening’s opening acts, returned for a three-way frolic early on, with Wilson whiffing away behind them on his harmonica.
Hornsby was greeted by a standing ovation when he joined Raitt to play electric piano on “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Adams and Raitt turned up the steam on a jolting “Rock Steady,” a song Adams wrote for her that will surely be one of the highlights of the album and PBS special.
Raitt herself supplied more than an album’s worth of goose- bump moments. Her set-closing version of the Talking Heads‘ “Burning Down the House” brought that surefire rouser into the house of rhythm and blues. Her performance of Richard Thompson‘s “Dimming of the Day” — “Of all the songs I’ve recorded,” she said, “I think this is my favorite” — burst into an explosion of pain and longing as she reached deep inside for the final chorus.
But that, ultimately, is what makes Raitt so special. She crawls inside these songs and lives them each time she sings. The heart of each piece is so plainly evident, so palpably exposed.
Furthermore, after essentially spending the past eight years on the road in the wake of her “Nick of Time” breakthrough, Raitt has drilled her exceptional band into a combat-tested cadre, schooled to close-order precision in her style. This flexible unit moved fluidly from supple, spare folk accompaniment to loud, raucous rock. Guitarist George Marinelli shifted from background to foreground at the drop of a pick. Bassist Hutch Hutchinson pulled out a hollow- body model to stitch limber, loping lines into the densely woven fabric Raitt laid down on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s delta blues, “Sweet Home Kokomo.”
After spending more than 20 years beating the bushes, plugging away at nightclubs and recording worthy album after album that few noticed, Raitt has earned her stardom. Maybe that explains why nobody wears the crown with more grace, dignity and ease.
She explained to the audience why she chose the Bay Area to record this album and TV special: “I wanted to feel comfortable in front of people who are rhythm and blues fans,” she said, “who appreciate a good ballad and who know I’m not a country act.”