Two American icons stun their audience with energy and emotion
With a career that spans more than 50 years and a list of accolades that include practically every honor imaginable, Bonnie Raitt makes it clear she’s not about to slow down.
Her new album, Just Like That, offers proof enough, but given her confidence and credence as an unrelenting road warrior — with a crack band in tow no less — she offers every indication she remains at the top of her game.
Raitt’s recent sold out performance at Knoxville’s historic Tennessee Theater confirmed that fact as well, giving her adoring fans exactly what they expected, a set full of songs that spanned the breadth of her career, with a couple of surprises tossed in for good measure. The aforementioned backing band — many of whom have been with her for decades — showed they were well up to the task as well, and indeed with Duke Levine on guitar and backing vocals, James “Hutch” Hutchinson on bass, drummer Ricky Fataar, and “newcomer” Glenn Patscha on keyboards, the material remains absolutely as vital as ever.
Nevertheless, it’s not simply her ability or dexterity that proves the point. Her commitment to cause — as relayed through songs that resonate with determined resolve and unfettered emotion — reflect her resilience. She introduced one song as having been written when she was 40 — over 30 years ago in fact — and noted that her fear of getting older seems almost comical in retrospect. “I wouldn’t want to be 40 again,” she confessed.
While Raitt always seemed worldly beyond her years — especially given an early catalog comprised of ageless blues — she now has the benefit of being able to infuse a marked maturity into her repertoire. Consequently, her age-old staple, “Angel from Montgomery” and it’s line, “I am an old woman” appear all the more meaningful, especially in light of its songwriter, John Prine’s recent passing. Raitt’s rendition seemed to find her on the verge of tears, no surprise considering their close personal and professional relationship. So too, several songs were filtered through with similar sentiments, and Raitt made it clear that present circumstances — the twin tragedies of covid and gun violence— were never far from her mind. “Livin’ for the Ones,” taken from the new album, was particularly poignant:
“I’m livin’ for the ones who didn’t make it
Cut down through no fault of their own
Just keep ’em in mind, all the chances denied
If you ever start to bitch and moan…”
Given the recent horror of the Robb Elementary school massacre in Texas, those words seemingly especially prescient, considering that it had taken place only a couple of days before. Not surprisingly, the sadness was palpable, and Raitt herself literally appeared on the verge of tears.
That’s not to say that the concert was anything close to a somber occasion. Far from it in fact. Raitt’s vocals, slide guitar playing and turn at the keyboards was as adept as ever, and with a set list that included both venerable classics (“I Can’t Make You Love Me,” “Nick of Time,” “Something To Talk About”), a generous assortment of tracks from the new album (“When We Say Goodnight,” “Blame It On Me,” “Love So Strong,” “Made Up My Mind”) and a couple of surprises (John Lee Hooker’s “Black Cloud,” Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House”), the show was flush with excellent entertainment.
On the other hand, special guest Lucinda Williams seemed somewhat stilted. Having suffered a stroke not long ago, she was understandably shaky, having to be helped on and offstage, and once at the mic, appearing decidedly unsteady. She was entertaining however, especially when relaying a story about being at a karaoke bar and finding herself singing one of her own songs. She also paid ample homage to her tour mate.
“I’m real happy we were able to do this show together,” she said. “She’s inspired me as an artist. “She’s something else.”
Raitt returned the compliment later on.
Nevertheless, despite having an outstanding band at her disposal and a relatively rocking set list (the opening offering “Can’t Let Go” was especially robust), there seemed to be a pall hanging over her performance. One song in particular, “Big Black Train,” dealt with her battle with depression and her deadpan delivery did little to underscore any attempt at exuberance. Her final number, “Joy,” seemed somewhat ironic, given the mood overall. More surprising still considering recent LU’s Jukebox series, she didn’t share any of those compelling covers.
Still, the opportunity to see two legendary artists fill the same bill was reason enough to inspire interest. And given the history and harmony shared throughout the evening, that anticipation was well rewarded.