1:10 AM CDT, May 20, 2012
Bonnie Raitt claimed she was “intimidated” by the Chicago Theatre, but that hardly seemed the case Saturday in the first of two sold-out concerts at the Loop landmark.
Raitt’s wisecracks, several at her own expense, and genial banter made it seem like she was unwinding in her living room with a few close friends. Indeed, she and her road band of 25 years have a camaraderie that bleeds into the music. “Sometimes we just guess,” she cracked as she tried to determine the proper key for a song. “Then it’s jazz.”
That’s pretty much how they treated a deep dive into Bob Dylan’s “Million Miles,” a blues turned sullen and sultry. Raitt finger-picked an acoustic guitar as though she were tracing a bead of sweat as it migrated from forehead to chest at the end of a blistering day. Drummer Ricky Fataar and bassist Hutch Hutchinson kept the pulse almost subliminal, more felt than heard. Guitarist George Marinelli and keyboardist Mike Finnigan darted and dodged with solos that made the most of a minimum number of notes. It was an exquisite ensemble performance that made a virtue of underplaying. As Raitt and her bandmates lowered the volume, the song’s temperature rose, pulling the audience closer.
This band was right at home covering Ray Charles’ 1950s jazz-soul classic, “I’ve Got News For You,” with Finnigan overplaying his vocal a bit, but bringing the sanctified fervor on Hammond organ. They mixed and matched musical idioms with conversational ease, from the reggae treatment of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line” to the West African feel of the guitars in “Come to Me.” Raitt’s touch on slide guitar remains peerless, playing it slow and sensual in the Rafferty tune and weaving surreal harmonics through “Have a Heart.” On “Down to You,” Raitt briefly rested her head on Marinelli’s shoulder and smiled as the two dueled toe to toe.
The red-headed singer also reaffirmed her ability to examine emotional intimacy and distance in song, the moments that test the resilience of a relationship. She has long been associated with roots music and blues, but another hallmark of her 41-year career is her keen ear for lyrics and her generosity in spotlighting under-the-radar songwriters. On Saturday, she highlighted the work of estimable if marginally publicized talents such as Joe Henry, Jon Cleary and Bonnie Hayes, among others.
There was one clunker: “Marriage Made in Hollywood” sunk beneath its finger-pointing sanctimony. Raitt's best social-political commentary was an off-hand remark on the bulked-up police presence outside the venue in response to anticipated protests of the weekend's NATO summit: "500,000 police and a few hundred protesters -- that's a good use of public funds."
Raitt was at her best on songs of everyday heartbreak, especially her stunning a cappella first verse to John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery" and her wrenching account of a guilt-ridden phone call in Al Anderson and Bonnie Bishop’s “Not Cause I Wanted To.” The latter was essentially an acoustic duet between Raitt and Marinelli. The rest of the band was there, but barely. Raitt loves to share, but on this song, she had everything covered.
Bonnie Raitt set list Saturday at the Chicago Theatre:
1. Used to Rule the World
2. Right Down the Line
3. Something to Talk About
4. Million Miles
5. You Can't Fail Me Now
6. Love Sneakin’ Up on You
7. Come to Me
8. Marriage Made in Hollywood
9. Ain't Gonna Let You Go
10. Not Cause I Wanted To
11. Angel From Montgomery
12. Down to You
13. I’ve Got News for You (keyboardist Mike Finnigan on lead vocal)
14. Love Letter
15. So Damn Good
16. I Can't Make You Love Me
17. Have a Heart
18. Crazy Love (Van Morrison cover with opener Marc Cohn)
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