“Thank you for packing this place,” Bonne Raitt told the crowd at the Saenger Theatre. “We’re going to pack you with as much joy as you can stand.”
The bottleneck guitar goddess, in a festive green velvet shirt festooned with sparkles, seemed full of effusive holiday cheer Saturday night. Throughout the set, she thanked by name not only her longtime band – George Marinelli on guitar, Mike Finnigan on keys, Ricky Fataar on drums and former Neville Brothers band bassist James “Hutch” Hutchinson (“I didn’t steal him, but I did some serious begging,” she said) but also her guitar tech, Manny Alvarez; her tour sound engineer, Paul Middleton; the monitor guy, the lighting guy, and the bus drivers.
Raitt kicked off the nearly two-year-long tour for her Grammy-winning album “Slipstream”, and finished it Saturday night at the Saenger. At the Fair Grounds that year, producer Quint Davis – who was in the house Saturday and had given the guitarist a piece of Haitian metal sculpture as a holiday gift, which she showed off from the stage – commented that back in the ‘70s, Raitt was the first non-Louisiana native he’d booked to perform at Jazz Fest. Early in the set, she cheered Davis and the festival; later on, she praised the Saenger’s renovation and reminisced about her many visits to town.
In an interview late last month, Raitt told me, offhandly, that she started her career with the humble aim of getting to open for some of her musical heroes (and she did get to, working with Howlin’ Wolf, Sippie Wallace, Son House and John Lee Hooker.) As a performer who largely interprets the songs of others, as opposed to writing, fandom is an important engine of her art; Raitt needs to dig, discover music that resonates with her, and make it her own. She does this consistently and with a passion that’s palpable. Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line,” two Bob Dylan covers from his “Time Out of Mind” album and John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery,” one of her signature songs, were only a few of the adopted tunes Raitt lit up with her own spark at the Saenger.
Saturday’s nearly two-hour set doubled down on demonstrating her appreciation for other artists’ talent. Jon Cleary, who played in Raitt’s band throughout the ‘90s, joined her onstage for two of his own songs, “Fool’s Game” and “So Damn Good,” during which the backdrop was lit in Mardi Gras colors and Raitt whipped out a handkerchief to wave as she danced to a shuffle beat.
Opener Paul Brady, who penned the title track and the hit “Not the Only One” from her 1991 hit album “Luck of the Draw,” joined the bandleader onstage for Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” and “Marriage Made in Hollywood.” Finnigan took the mic on a stinging, electrified organ-led “I Got News for You.” Blues harmonica player Johnny Nicholas, who played Chickie Wah Wah Friday, blew on a slow and lowdown “Love Me Like a Man” from Raitt’s 1972 album “Give it Up,” written by New Orleans native Chris Smither. And Allen Toussaint, Raitt’s old friend from both musicians’ ’70s tenure on the Warner Brothers label, left his seat in the crowd – where he had been graciously posing for fan photos – to sit in on Barbara George’s 1961 hit for the A.F.O. label, “I Know (You Don’t Love Me No More)”.
It was a rollicking, laid-back, sometimes raunchy party, with Raitt as hostess, sometimes taking the spotlight and sometimes hanging back to trade licks with Marinelli, her longtime right hand, on guitars. The shindig climaxed when all returned to the stage for the final encore, an all-in blues jam on “Never Make Your Move too Soon,” which Raitt recorded live with R&B greats Ruth Brown and Charles Brown in the ‘90s.
And at the show’s close, the ensemble took bows together.