Catching Bonnie Raitt at the Arlington Theatre, as a full house did for a generous Valentine’s Day concert of musical kindness, is bound to trigger nostalgia for some. Longtime locals will remember hearing her in this special venue, going back to the “prehistoric age” of the late 1970s, when she was a cult and critical favorite.
That was long before she became a “comeback” sensation and a representative voice for aging baby boomers with her late-blooming hit 1989 album “Nick of Time.”
By this point, she’s going strong and connecting all the varied dots of her musical identity at age 56.
Raitt manages to be a deft multitasker of an artist, and her latest album, “Souls Alike,” is one of her most exciting and artistically varied records in years.
Taking the stage with her fiery and subtle band, Raitt put on a captivating show, during which she juggled her multiple hats: organic R&B funk chef, pop chanteuse with heart on sleeve, blues woman with a dirty mind and inveterate activist.
In this benefit concert for the UCSB Arts & Lectures educational outreach program, Raitt touted the fact that their tour bus was running on biodiesel — and quite nicely, thank you.
In short, Raitt gave the crowd what it wanted, and needed.
She tugged on midlife heartstrings, invoking the sweet sadness of time’s passage with “Nick of Time.”
But she also got gritty when singing seminal blues woman Sippi Wallace’s “Women be Wise” (key line, “don’t advertise your man”) and “I Believe I’m in Love with You,” by Kim Wilson, the Goleta-bred blues hero (aka “Goleta Slim”).
As a slide guitar stylist, Raitt has an uncanny way of coaxing ethereal, bluesy beauty with a few well-placed, vibrato-laden long notes.
Tuesday’s show opened with keyboardist Jon Cleary’s New Orleans-ish tune “Unnecessarily Mercenary,” from the new album, and we were reminded that part of Raitt’s roots go back to the influence of her friend, the late Lowell George from Little Feat.
Cleary’s new song is reminiscent of George’s “Mercenary Territory” and Raitt’s goosey-graceful slide guitar notes and vocal phrasing carried forward the Little Feat founder’s imprint.
Raitt can get down and nasty and swampy, but she also delivers a sad ballad with the best of them, as she did with Michael McDonald’s “Matters of the Heart” and an especially slow, airy and poignant encore version of her hit “I Can’t Make You Love Me.”
Singer-songwriter Paul Brady, the Irishman whose solo opening act was an ideal warm-up for Raitt, joined her onstage to sing harmony and musically bond on “Luck of the Draw” and on the shamelessly romantic anthem “Not the Only One,” both written by Brady. (Because Raitt doesn’t write much, her career has been a boon to many an outside songwriter).
After “Not the Only One,” Raitt, ever attentive to contrast and pacing in her work, shrugged, “Sorry if that got a little bit sappy . . . I can’t help it.” Next up, the band jumped into the lanky shuffle-rocking energy of John Hiatt’s “Thing Called Love.”
In a way, the star of this show, at least in terms of offering a fresh addition to the Raitt songbook, was a voice strictly behind the scenes.
Songwriter Maia Sharp’s intriguingly left-of-center tunes are highlights of the new album, and perked up ears in concert, as well.
Sharp’s wickedly appealing “Crooked Crown” is a cool and inventive song, along the lines of a progressive blues-rock style, while “The Bed I Made,” the new album’s closer, was played like a brooding jazz ballad.
As Raitt delivered the song, with her blend of wisdom and vulnerability, you could hear a pin and/or a tear drop in the house.
Raitt’s latest visit to the Arlington confirmed that there still aren’t many singers alive with the alternately tough and the tender stuff she brings to her art.