Last night I saw another great artist doing sideshows after Byron Bay: Bonnie Raitt. It was a significant change from The Stooges.
The opening act was a substantial set from R&B legend Mavis Staples. And yes, anyone who started performing as a member of The Staples Singers family in 1950 is a legend. She and her tight band served up a whole bunch of gospel soul. It was polished but heartfelt, a classy old-school set of songs that appealed to pop as much as civil rights protests as much as God. Mavis can still holler. They did a stirring version of The Band’s “The Weight”, and pledged some love to the departed Levon Helm. And Bonnie Raitt even came out early to play “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” with Mavis and the band.
Bonnie was soon out for her own set, though. Most people know of Raitt through her easy-listening blues-pop hits since the early ’90s, though she had been recording – and critically acclaimed, if never commercially successful – for two decades before that. She’s a comfortable songwriter and performer, a competent bottleneck slide guitarist, and has a knack for introducing a variety of musical styles into her songs in a really approachable way.
All of these aspects came out on stage. She never missed a beat, even with some ostensible on-stage confusion as she changed the setlist. Everything just seemed cool and smooth, every guitar lick sounded great. Bonnie herself sounded and looked amazing (for any age, we agreed, not just the 63 years she actually is).
The close proximity to the previous night’s punk antics made some of it a little too smooth for me, maybe. But you can’t hate Raitt, nor chastise her overmuch for being classy and caring about tone. She is the anti-Iggy.
Of course she played “Have a Heart”, “Thing Called Love”, “I Can’t Make You Love Me”, and “Something To Talk About”. I was surprised she didn’t do “Love Letter” or “Love Sneakin’ Up On You”, but those are pretty lightweight hits so nothing was lost.
Highlights for me were songs that can serve as near bookends: her 1974 version of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery” was beautiful, and her 2012 rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Million Miles” was spookily intense. You can watch live versions of both of these, from a show last year, below.
Note that “Million Miles” is one of two songs on her last release, Slipstream,that are covers from Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind album (the other being “Standing in the Doorway”). Good taste, Bonnie.
The blues – in one of its many and varied forms – lives on in Bonnie Raitt.