Bonnie Raitt at The Ryman, 5/12/12



Saturday night at the Ryman, you got the sense that even Bonnie Raitt didn’t quite know what to expect out of Bonnie Raitt, newly returned to the road after a lengthy sabbatical. Just after taking the stage with her band, she friskily acknowledged the passage of time by pretending to hobble around with an imaginary cane: “I’m getting’ kinda old, if you know what I’m sayin’.” What she was saying — without actually saying it — was that she was feeling game, and nowhere near feeble.

Raitt kept it loose, her interactions with band, her stage crew and the sold-out crowd spontaneous, the set list subject to tweaks and re-tweaks on the fly, her phrasing venturesome. When she flubbed lyrics, which happened more than twice, she laughed about it. Altogether, it made for a warm, unscripted performance.

She had, she said, just three general principles to guide her that and every night: songwriting, blues and “men and women — and other combinations — not getting along.” The supple ballads and sinewy rockers, mostly from her new album Slipstream, with a few drawn from commercial blockbusters Nick of Time, Luck of the Draw and Longing In Their Hearts, moved her to thank the songwriters by name. But it was the 12-bar shuffles, a form she’s been living with for well over four decades, that practically lifted her right off her feet.

As stodgy as this might initially sound, the evening’s subtle undercurrent was the theme of equality. Raitt made a passing reference to the previous week’s debates on same-sex marriage, and waited until the very end to mention the environmental organizations camped out in her merch area. But throughout the night she sang not about people struggling to get along so much as relational give and take, mutual pleasure, going out on emotional limbs for each other. And when you get down to it, that last part is exactly what she did for her audience.

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