If dreams were thunder and lightning was desire, it was perhaps owed to Bonnie Raitt’s playful tinkering of John Prine’s beatified lines Friday night at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Raitt demonstrated that she’s an equally skilled song interpreter and writer, toggling Prine’s poetic chronology to subtly challenge her audience’s attention. But the fire-andash-haired trobairitz also accomplished something more profound. She reminded that, while Adele and Bon Iver find creative ways to explore her best material on stage, she’s still the sturdiest bridge between the classic and the contemporary.
Back by a band with as much brand-name clout as the star out front (remember drummer Ricky Fataar as “the quiet one” in All You Need Is Cash?), Raitt offered 40 years of her own roadhouse blues and pristine country pop right alongside exquisitely reverent, and often unexpected, covers. The sold-out two-hour performance opened with a lightly funkified take on Randall Bramblett’s “Used to Rule the World,” a direct reminder that none are impervious to the erosion of time. It’s off of Slipstream, her first new album in seven years and her first Top 10 album since 1994’s No. 1 Longing In Their Hearts concluded a period where Raitt herself actually did rule the world. It wasn’t followed by degradation in quality, rather a sea change that Raitt seemed to weather with a string of merely Top 20 releases.
Today, Raitt is celebrating not only 40 years on the road, but 25 years of sobriety, a milestone she acknowledged by walking offmic to thank her longtime friend and firsttime keyboardist Mike Finnigan directly.
It was the former Jimi Hendrix and CSN sideman, she said, who was there while they were being “overserved,” but also there when she decided to trade highballs for high-country bike rides like the one she took before her Asheville performance earlier that week.
Raitt explained that authenticity is a product of lifestyle, but not the kind that’s normally associated with the music business, then demonstrated it every time she put bottleneck to guitar. BB King once lauded Raitt as his favorite slide guitarist and while she’s not as fiery as her mane might suggest, her biggest talent lies in her ability to economize. Her guitar bridge on a barrelhouse blues reimagining of Talking Heads’ “Burning Down the House” retained the original’s spooky mysticism, but marked out the chord changes into a crisp shuffle. Of course, when it came time to follow a blue-eyed reggae cover of Gerry Rafferty’s “Right Down the Line,” she went effortlessly footloose with the slide on “Something to Talk About.”
Raitt doesn’t need a guitar solo to floor her audience though, as the years haven’t worn away the delicate grit on her voice. She opened her encore to the aching ballad “I Can’t Make You Love Me” backed only by unnerving silence until Finnigan came in with a piano melody that’s so dated it’s new again.
Raitt’s voice never, ever rattled, but she did graciously accept support from very pregnant opener Sarah Siskind on Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery.” In addition to the aforementioned tweaks, Raitt’s cold open was actually anything but. She defiantly announced, “I am an old woman,” before turning it over to the Winston-Salem-born Siskind (nee Wingate, Mount Tabor High, Class of ’97). Siskind treated its most affecting verse with pure aural honey, much in the same way Raitt did on Prine’s 1988 album Live. And so, the bridge still stands.