Bonnie Raitt hit the grandstand stage at the Minnesota State Fair on Thursday night with something to talk about.
First, she saluted her opening act, Mavis Staples, calling her a national treasure. (Agreed, especially after Staples’ soul-stirring set.) Then, Raitt dedicated the night to her late brother, Steve Raitt, longtime Twin Cities sound engineer and all-around good guy. (Little sis also gave shout-outs to his friends in the crowd.)
Thursday’s concert wasn’t as overwhelmingly emotional as Raitt’s last performance at the fair in 2009, a mere four months after Steve died of brain cancer. She seemed a little distracted this time by the impending rain, rushing through things. Too much of the time she ceded guitar solo opportunities to George Marinelli, her excellent sideman, instead of taking them herself.
But Raitt finally found her focus when she relied on her Minnesota compass, first by interpreting a number by that “little bluesman from up the road a piece in Hibbing,” Bob Dylan’s seething slow-burn lament “Million Miles,” and then the sassy swamp rocker “Love Sneakin’ Up on You,” for which Steve had always joined her onstage in Minnesota (his home since Bonnie recorded her first album here in 1971).
Near song’s end, Marinelli played a dirty, twisted rock guitar solo, and then Raitt took over with a long, emotional, sweet slide guitar excursion. Even with her eyes closed, she had a dreamy look on her face as her fingers moved effortlessly across her guitar. Then, off microphone, she mouthed the words: “I love you, Steve.”
From then on, the Rock Hall of Fame’s most famous redhead gave a blue-ribbon performance.
Raitt, 62, is as good as any big name at filling her concert with a full range of human emotions. For 85 minutes at the fair, she took 8,085 fans on a roller-coaster ride from the frisky joy of “Something to Talk About” and the festive blues of “I Feel So Damn Good” to the two-hankie tearjerker ballad “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” during which she summoned a weariness from a place where the deepest hurt of unrequited love resides.
With a tendency to get extra-emotional in her adopted second state, the Californian recalled how her late mother sang with her for the first time onstage at the State Fair, on John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.” Raitt dedicated the poignant ballad to her mom and all moms, singing the first verse a cappella with stunning effect, then letting Marinelli’s slow Southern guitar lines frame the song, finally taking it home in a voice that was pretty and painful at the same time.
With lightning flashing, Raitt turned the spotlight to new organist Mike Finnigan, who has played with Etta James and Crosby, Stills & Nash, for Ray Charles’ rousing “I’ve Got News for You,” which brought Raitt’s sexiest, slowest slide passage. With rain falling, she summoned another keyboardist, Minneapolis’ own Willie Murphy (producer of her debut disc), who elevated “Never Make Your Move Too Soon” into a rollicking roadhouse finale.
In her opening set, Rock Hall of Famer Staples, 73, preached in song and conversation. With her throaty, roof-raising growl, she whipped the crowd into a frenzy, especially with her classic “I’ll Take You There” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a soul-warming duet with Raitt.
Jon Bream has been a music critic at the Star Tribune since 1975, making him the longest tenured pop critic at a U.S. daily newspaper. He has attended more than 8,000 concerts and written four books (on Prince, Led Zeppelin, Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan). Thus far, he has ignored readers’ suggestions that he take a music-appreciation class.