Not many shows start with the artist briefly halting the proceedings because something got stuck in her bra strap, but nothing about Bonnie Raitt has ever been typical.
Before she and her crackerjack four-piece band played a note at Wednesday’s Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre gig, Raitt took a moment to admire the venue – something she did several times throughout the show – and chat with the crowd.
It was a refreshingly intimate, barrier-breaking launch that set the casual tone for her nearly two-hour concert, her first Atlanta appearance since a Chastain stop in 2009.
She stuck to her promise of playing a mixture of old and new songs, kicking off the night with her fine reggae-lite version of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line,” the lead single from her recently released “Slipstream” album – her first new one in seven years that has been comfortably ensconced at the top of the Billboard blues chart for three weeks.
The sights were immediately familiar – that blond forelock set against her fiery mane, the bottleneck slide on her left middle finger. And Raitt was quick with a quip (“At 62, I’m grateful to remember most of [the words]”), a comeback (“Oh, honey, if you only knew. I look good from up here,” she said to a guy shouting out a marriage proposal) or some simple philosophies (“Every day above ground is a miracle”).
But her candid chatter never got in the way of the music.
“Something to Talk About,” her biggest pop hit from 21 (!!) years ago, made an early appearance with Raitt slightly tweaking the phrasing, most likely for her own sanity. Then she switched to an acoustic guitar to unveil “Million Miles,” the Bob Dylan song she recorded on “Slipstream.”
Her voice stretched the notes like taffy – or, rather, taffy drenched in whiskey – during the song, a ballad that took its time with a visceral electric piano solo from Mike Finnigan and a sizzling guitar lead from George Marinelli.
Raitt’s comfort level among her longtime bandmates was a joy to watch whether she was bumping foreheads with Marinelli, giving a shoutout to bassist “Hutch” Hutchinson, praising “the engine room,” drummer Ricky Fataar, or turning the spotlight over to Finnigan, as she did later in the show when he pumped out Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got News for You.”
She has always cautiously embraced the commercial side of her success, but there is no doubt how much Raitt enjoys being onstage. Good thing, too, since the (more or less) sold out Atlanta stop was only a few dates into a live journey that rolls through October.
For many singers, looking down an itinerary of 80-plus shows foreshadows vocal disaster. But Raitt’s voice is one of unvarnished beauty, an instrument that zig-zags from teasing sexiness (“Come to Me”) to aching melancholy (“Not ‘Cause I Wanted To”) and injects battle-scarred wisdom into every lyric.
Her guitar skills, too, are undiminished with age, as she effortlessly drew solos out of her cooperative Fender, notably on the blues-rock grinder “Spit of Love” and the locomotive chugger, “I Feel So Damn Good (I’ll Be Glad When I Get The Blues).”
Raitt was also joined by Randall Bramblett, who opened the show as a last-minute fill-in for an ailing Marc Cohn, on “Used to Rule the World,” a song Bramblett co-wrote on “Slipstream.” It wasn’t the most memorable tune of the night, but both he and Raitt appeared to enjoy the live give-and-take.
The first ovation came, unsurprisingly, after Raitt’s tender rendition of “Angel from Montgomery,” the John Prine song most associated with her early career.
But the most potent emotional wallop was saved for an encore performance of “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Few singers deliver heartache like Raitt, and two decades after the song’s appearance on her “Luck of the Draw” album, the spare ballad is still shuddering with deep sadness.
Raitt’s voice, set against the light tap of a high-hat and minimal piano, was chill-inducing as it alternately soared and dipped, husky and vulnerable. Those whose hearts didn’t crumble must have ice in their veins.
Even Raitt, who was in a chipper mood throughout the show, looked drained by the last notes, another unguarded moment in a concert full of them.
Check out our photo gallery from Wednesday’s show.
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